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Curating Jewish Culture in the Age of Electronic Reproducibility

Jewish liturgy prefaces a number of prayers with the phrase “Our God and God of our Ancestors,” which I have always taken to mean that there is a spirit of tradition of which it is the responsibility of each generation to make sense, and renew. For our generation, the challenge is to make Jewish culture relevant in the age of iTunes, iPhones and MMPRGs while keeping alive the diverse spirits of Jewish traditions.

Experiences from such events as religious services, summer camps and celebrity readings may have new flavors, but they are still roughly the same as they were in the 1970s or even the 1990s — except that their constituencies have shrunk or become isolated. The world has grown to include an ever more fluid and larger virtual component online, and in such peripherals as cell phones and iPods. The near-infinite ability to reproduce electronically has changed the context for all culture.

In talking about religion, Reboot’s recent “OMG! How Generation Y Is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era,” notes that “members of Generation Y have individualized world views, an apparent lack of interest in traditional religious institutions, and emphasize diversity.” But as Douglas Rushkoff pointed out in his 2003 book “Nothing Sacred,” unlike narrow religiosity, Jewish culture is perfectly placed to move into the 21st century, because Jewishness is perfect for this new hybrid world: It’s mobile, it’s democratic and it’s niche.

We are mobile because, despite our cultic fringe, ever since Shimon bar Yochai’s response to the destruction of the Second Temple, we have been a people based in language rather than a cult based on a geographic location. We are not a people given to monuments: We built the pyramids, but not through choice! As Ozymandias would testify in Percy Shelley’s poem, endurance is not based on physical achievements: Our ability to endure as a diverse people of ideas has outlasted the pharaohs of every age.

We are democratic because, despite the cultural agendas set by moneyed individuals and institutions, Jewishness is decentralized and open to individuals shaping their own participation. Anyone can engage in our practices, irrespective of bloodline, caste, qualifications or, except for a few religious practices, gender. Likewise, you do not even have to be Jewish to participate. And what even constitutes membership is still a matter of prolonged and energetic debate.

Whether by design or not, we are a niche proposition. There are about as many people registered for the online 3-D world Second Life as there are Jews in the world, but fewer Second Lifers in the U.S. Senate. The strength of our commitment to learning, justice and de facto cultural eclecticism has meant that though we are few, we have been disproportionately historically prominent. We are a high-quality niche.

Information about our niche flows along the two routes through which electronic culture permeates: broadcast and peercast. The former we are familiar with from radio, TV and movies that reach us, and everyone around us, every day. Jews have been particularly prominent in this, but Jewishness far less so. It is only recently that Jews, especially Israelis — blessed with fewer hang-ups about tackling “Jewish” issues on a wider stage — are broadcasting Jewish issues to everyone, with confidence that the particularity of the story will not prejudice the universality of the issue. Witness Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir,” now on general release with Sony, and Amos Gitai’s “One Day You’ll Understand,” which aired last month during prime time on France’s Channel 2.

“Peercasting” is my coinage, but it is something we are also familiar with, although perhaps not in its vast contemporary scope. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, people swapped baseball cards or records with friends; today, the analogous items (music, movies, pictures, impressions) are reproducible and thus almost infinitely shareable through such sources as Amazon lists, iPod playlists, iTunes, blogs, tumblr, Pandora, Blip and YouTube, to name a few. In the same way that dealing baseball cards was part of the real world, all of these products of the new interconnectedness are quite as real for those dealing in this new culture.

I call it peercasting, because, just like the concept of “viral” marketing, it relies on person-to-person transmission. It is possible, and desirable, for people to share products rather than trade them, and relatively simple for someone to make a new, comparable product. Not only can the two of you have a Yogi Berra card, but either of you can make a whole series of Yogi Berra-related Web products if you wanted. Or you could both have a set of NHL cards and own the first Wayne Gretzky! This infinite “replicability” is why MLB, the NHL and the NBA are just as worried about copyright as RCA, EMI and S&S.

Judaism is not cool per se. We don’t need to compete to be “hip” in the so-called marketplace of ideas. There are many aspects of Jewishness that are worthwhile, enduring and profound, and given the chance, those aspects will inspire different people in different ways. For Regina Spektor, to take an example, they may come out tangentially (being Jewish didn’t make her a great singer/songwriter); or for Folman, they may be central (his Israeli identity is constitutive to his art). But these are both ways of inspiring people to further examine Jewish ideas, values and art.

And that means inspiring all people, not just people who are identifiably Jewish. This is not a call for proselytizing, but an observation that the difference between most Jews and the non-Jews they live among is vanishingly small. Aiming our efforts at those who come to Jewish prayers and programs at Jewish Community Centers, Hillels and synagogues, no problem. But what about those who don’t? We need culture for them, too: As an Israeli friend of mine said, “You wouldn’t just put food on the table that one child liked if you had three children, would you?”

In this model, though, open-source cultures like ours stand to gain. As long as our confidence in different brands of Jewishness is well placed, peercasting will work to our advantage because our ideas are strong and our diversity will serve us well. The binary constructs of Ashkenazim/Sephardim, religious/nonreligious, Israel/Diaspora and affiliated/nonaffiliated are misleading and unhelpful. Jewishness has always been a vibrantly diverse thing: a nationality, a peoplehood, a sense of belonging, a series of geographically disparate cultures, a decentralized religion. And diverse it should stay. Its particular eclectic mix of global cultures may be strongly flavored by 17th-century Polish religiosity, but we should not confuse a product with a brand: We must distinguish handkerchiefs from Kleenex.

At the end of the 19th century, critic Walter Pater proclaimed, “All art aspires to the condition of music.” He was talking about its mode of intangible emotiveness, but it seems to be more tangibly the case for the Internet age, where music moved digital early on and now leads the trends in file-sharing and hardware sales. An iPod, anyone? Like early radio disk jockeys who found, played and discussed an eclectic group of artists, today’s curators and editors are trying to parlay their institutional involvement into some form of value-added recommendation.

In these pages two weeks ago, Jay Michaelson argued that environmentalism, as the pre-eminent issue of our time, could give Jews a sense of direction and pride. He stated that “when authentic Jewish values are brought to bear on contemporary problems, the result is often a level of engagement, particularly among younger and less affiliated Jews, that is hard to find elsewhere.” Amir, a public respondent on our Web site, expands the point: “When the only contact made to me by the community is endless appeals for money, often in support of Israeli policies with which I vehemently disagree, well, that’s not much of a draw is it? Real engagement, whether on environmental or social justice issues, is much more likely to draw someone like me in.”

Jewish engagement with the challenges of the 21st century is vital, both in themes and in methods. At the cutting edge of that are the curators who have the background and the interest to bring authentic Jewish values and contemporary problems into the same space. What happens in those spaces is up to the people, but in the people we trust: Lo bashamayim hi.

Dan Friedman is the arts and culture editor of the Forward. [email protected]

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