Thursday, February 26, 2009

For 'The People Of The Book,' Jewish Culture Should Be About More Than Just A Bagel

Writing for The New Republic, Peter Miller describes how, upon entering a special exhibit
a sanctuary of civilization, was available to the roughly 10,000 people who in recent weeks packed the tenth-floor galleries at Sotheby's in New York to view the 13,000 books of the Valmadonna Trust collection. They were vouchsafed a vision as hallucinatory as any in Borges.

This astounding collection was begun at the turn of the century, but for the past seven decades it has been in the hands and in the London home of the Antwerp-born Jack Lunzer, a dealer in industrial diamonds by day and a lover of Hebrew books by night. During these decades it has grown from a small collection focused on 16th-century Italian Hebrew imprints--in some sense a golden age of Hebrew printing--to one that has taken the entirety of the Jewish historical experience as its purview, "books that are not only rare but truly significant for illustrating and understanding the Jewish diaspora."
But more than being an astounding collection of Jewish books from centuries past, it is also a testimony to Jewish communities that once flourished and have since disappeared--in more ways than one:
And there is still another sense, proved at Sotheby's recently, in which the people are gone. The visitors who snaked along the ropes set up in the auction house's lobby and out the door and up the street were quite obviously Jews. Some wore the anachronistic dress of early modern Polish nobility, others the modern yeshiva fashions of Washington Heights and Brooklyn. But almost none of them, at least when I was visiting, had uncovered heads. What does this mean? In 1990, a scholar of modern American Jewry wrote a book about orthodox Jews entitled New York's Jewish Jews. Well, if books are the heritage of the Jews, then don't they belong to non-religious Jews as well? (I leave aside the bigger and even more important questions of why a show of this magnitude would attract only Jews, or what it would mean if the majority of the visitors were not Jews.)

Where were the non-religious Jews who are mesmerized by the traditional Jewish bookshelf? Is the demography of the audience for a high-end show of Hebrew books, like that of rallies in support of the State of Israel, revealing an ever greater split between identifying with things Jewish and identifying as Jewish? If it is true--and, I agree, this is a big "if," which of course requires million-dollar studies by foundations and sociologists before it can be discussed with all due seriousness--then we may be witnessing the deterioration of the idea that one can be "culturally Jewish." For if the Valmadonna Library documents anything, it is the culture of Jews, the Jewish culture of Jews, over the last five hundred years.
This opens what Jewish culture means today, where it is likely to be associated most easily with Jewish food than with anything else. At a time when American Jews will proclaim their concern for Israel--but list it low among their considerations when at the voting booth, just what is it that binds Jews today?

Today, 'Jewish culture' is more likely to refer to tastes and manners than to knowledge and values--and when it does refer to values, it more often refers to liberal values that have more to do with politics than Judaism.

What is happening to The People of the Book?

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