US Orthodoxy and fear of the arts

Jerusalem Post article – A bit overstated but it has a point. There are some Orthodox Jews who do go into music and art, and there are kippot at Lincoln Center – it is not all or nothing. We have to distinguish between the two points the author is making- that few Orthodox kids go into the arts and that the community is philistine and wedded to pop culture.
His answer about courage is not the issue; his answer about risk aversion seems more to the point. Anyone who wants certainty in values, certainty in religion, and certainty in society-which are the reasons many choose Orthodoxy- would want certainty in the rest of their lives. But why the be philistine? There are many European orthodox in the Hirschian tradition, that are even more stiff and certain but appreciate the arts.
It is not the shomer shabbat question because in Israel they have founded Orthodox art and music HS’s and one can attend the arts on other days of the week. And if there was talent and desire, then people would find a way.

Guest Columnist: US Orthodoxy and fear of the arts
By JJ GROSS 14/01/2011
How can a society that crams the classes of law schools and medical schools barely yield a single poet or painter?

After making aliya last March, I started taking clarinet lessons at the Academy of Music and Dance, this country’s answer to Juilliard. Unsurprisingly, my instructor, Gadi, is a graduate student at the academy. What might surprise my friends in New York – as it did me – was his kippa.

In New York, one cannot find an Orthodox teacher at a serious conservatory. In fact, the likelihood of finding a classically trained Orthodox clarinetist in the Big Apple hovers at about zero.

As the weeks progressed, I realized that Gadi was hardly an anomaly. At the academy I noticed young kippa-wearing violinists, cellists, pianists and more. And surely there were at least as many Orthodox young women.

In fact, music is not the only art in which Orthodox Israelis are represented. Here one finds Orthodox painters, filmmakers, composers, writers and poets. In America? Forget about it! A celebrated fiction writer who is also a rosh yeshiva? In America, unthinkable. Here there’s Haim Sabato.

What’s more, Israel boasts a boys yeshiva-music high school, an Orthodox girls art high school, an Orthodox film school, and even a haredi classical conservatory for girls – not to mention myriad observant students at major art academies.

The hermetic absence of Orthodox Americans in the arts has long troubled me. There has never been a society without its quota of creative spirits. African tribes, barbarians in medieval Europe, aborigines in New Zealand, Indians in Central America have always had their dancers, musicians, artists and storytellers. Orthodox Jews in America? Nada.

Art is not a luxury. It is a necessary vitamin, if not our oxygen.

Indeed, both the modern Orthodox and the yeshivish borrow their celebratory and liturgical music exclusively from the hassidic world. And one often finds hassidic paintings on modern Orthodox walls. Kitsch? Maybe. But still.

How can a society that crams the classes of law schools and medical schools barely yield a single poet or painter? One explanation must be the prohibitive cost of being religious in America. The price of admission to Orthodox society for a family of four is a combined household income in the top 2%.

Understandably, Orthodox parents steer their children into lucrative professions rather than encouraging them to do what they love (and I include the sciences as well). The word “muse” is not part of their vocabulary. Even the rabbinate and Jewish pedagogy are spurned by the best and brightest, as these do not pay enough to make Jewish life affordable. It shows in the quality of American rabbis and day-school teachers who, with a few noteworthy exceptions, are distressingly average.

I believe the answer is courage. Diaspora Jews are not blessed with a surfeit of courage. They are geniuses at risk aversion. They choose safety in numbers, safety in professions, safety in neighborhoods, safety in the cars they drive. None ride motorcycles.

Choosing painting over law, music over medical school, writing over banking takes courage. One chooses an art because it is a passion, not because it comes with a guarantee.

American Orthodox teens are fast-tracked into college and narrow-tracked into law school or dental school… And if their gift is playing oboe or videography, they don’t have frightened parents and gutless pedagogues weaning them into life with a safety net.

The writer an advertising creative director who made aliya in March. His son, who preceded him, is a lieutenant in the IDF. Read entire article here.

13 responses to “US Orthodoxy and fear of the arts

  1. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I think it’s because of tuition. Tuition basically precludes the possibility of anyone pursuing a career as a musician. Additionally, being shomer Shabbat means it’s fairly unlikely you’re going to be successful, unless you’re incredibly talented. The combination means no one is even going to try.

  2. 20 year olds are idealists who think they will be the best and are not worried about their financial security 20 years later. Jon, the question as you phrase it is:Why are 20 year old artists prematurely old men?
    Yet I think some of the problem starts already in preschool. Violin lessons dont have the same cache and outside of religious requirements Centrist Orthodoxy is a pretty permissive, undisciplined, and indulgent community. Art, music, as well as Torah takes work. Outreach and entertainment outreach requires less.

  3. This article by Mr. Gross is for me a corroboration of what I’ve been thinking for many years, and a great pleasure to read. I don’t quite know where to begin since his account is so broad, and vividly captures many disparate features of Orthodoxy. I enjoyed and agree with his comments on the choice of lucrative professions and its relation to the cost of living an upscale Orthodox life, the philistine character of Orthodox education and much else. I also agree with his remark about courage, for all the reasons he mentioned and for an another reason as well. A person who has been told all his life to follow rules lacks the inner freedom, the courage if you will, to create something new, which more often than not involve breaking some of the rules. Even simple activities as being funny, comedy script writing , the ability to turn things around, see things from the less than obvious perspective needs an inner freedom, a playfulness, that is often lacking. Wit, humor, but not parody, even creative blogging requires a person to wiggle out from domination by the Big Other, gedolim, parents, teachers, and say something different. When it comes to painting, composing music and writing great works of fiction, without some private space to play and explore it’s virtually impossible.
    Appreciation of the arts in a bildung sort of way is a matter of culture to a large extent. If no one ever tells you what’s great, how would you know? Even when the parents aren’t knowledgeable, the aspiration of improving oneself might be enough to light a fire under the kids. A MO that is self satisfied and thinks of itself as central is not going to generate such aspirations. Children of refugees and immigrants, kids raised in poor neighborhoods who are ambitious, find it easier to become involved in high culture. They know they are starting out at the bottom.
    I find it especially interesting that Mr. Gross was an advertising creative director. In that world the talk is always aesthetic, how has the look of the world changed in comparison to the immediate past, and how do you push the look (language, branding) a little into the future. I tried capturing some of this in my recent comments here about style and the presentation of the self.If you want ‘artsy’ people you need a greater concern with visual surfaces, voices, writing styles, aspects of the world we have been all taught are not substantive.

  4. It isn’t tuition. It goes much deeper.

    Rav Kook hit the nail on the head when he suggested (in his speech at Bezalel) that the arts – music, film, poetry, dance, drama – are part of a healthy national existence. Any culture has these. They are a healthy outgrowth of Tzelem Elokim.

    Here in Israel people are connected to the land, are fully integrated and part of the pulse of living. Their faith, their passions, their history and future are fully engaged here. We are not on the defensive, protecting our Jewish identity from outside forces. There is a human need for expression and creativity and that comes out in the arts. This is an organic mix which comes out due to the language, and the full engagement, passion and sense of cultural connectivity that one can only feel in a culture which one is fully at home in the culture.

    For the Dati-leumi who have an active and free conversation which mixes religion, society, God, man, land, the individual and the national etc etc. there has been an explosion of artistic expression over the past 20 years. Part of it is the creation of institutions and an environment which has facilitated artistic expression in a “safe” way – religious film school Maale / single sex religious art school – Emuna College / religious girls dance program – Orot / Mashiv Haruach – poetry – this “safe zone” has allowed young people to engage in the arts in a free and engaged way, allowing all the senses to express themselves.

  5. I think that the answer has to go beyond logistics as well. One thing to distinguish might be whether we are talking about Orthodox participation in “high culture” in general, or particularly Jewish creative expression. In regard to the former, it’s my understanding that things like symphony subscriptions are on the decline in Israel as well. In regard to the latter, I could not agree more with Rav Alex that there is no comparing what is going on in Israel! But is it NECESSARILY a function of being in the land of Israel? What about the medieval Jewish poets of Spain, or the boundless creative spirit we see in the Talmud itself? With the freedoms we have, what is keeping us back?

  6. This is not based on anything. MO is a tiny community and if you count lit, it probably makes a proportionate or even slightly disproportionate share of cultural production. You need to show an actual statistic here. The question of why YU is not the avant garde center is kind of a facile one.

  7. R. Alex, I’m not convinced. I went to a MO high school, and there were plenty of musicians in my 200-student class, and not a single one is pursuing a career in music. I know of only one artist, and she mainly works as a graphic designer.

    Dr. Brill – I was one of those kids who wanted to be a musician in high school, and who considered himself capable of being the best and all that. But when I sat down and thought about it, my thought process went “a) I intend to have a Jewish family b) Jewish families need to spend exorbitant amounts on tuition c) my inability to play Friday night is going to make for a bad response to tuition.” While the Shabbat thing may be negotiable for more kids in high school and college, I think most kids in the MO community are raised with an eye towards settling down with a family and day school one day. The arts make for nice hobbies, but not sources of income. Just my own anecdotal experience.

  8. I wonder at the role YU played in this in encouraging a conflict between Torah and the arts. In my day, both art and music were required courses — to the chagrin and disdain of most students. Of course, one could always avoid taking the course by writing a paper on why it was asur to look at nudes and greek statues, according to Rabbi Herschel Schachter.

    There is so much wrong with that system that’s it’s difficult to unpack, but I think it bespeaks the ultimate phoniness of Norman Lamm’s Centrism: The desire to appear to be both “cultured” and ‘orthodox” but totally unwilling to create something new and distinctive. The goal was not to actually cultivate culture in the broadest number of students — that would have required a different course, one which paid tribute to haredi restrictions on the one hand and didn’t require rote memorization of artists and painting titles on the other. The goal was to look like every other university and every other yeshiva.

    I wonder to what extent these attitudes filtered down when those who had survived art appreciation — through either path — went on to become rabbis.

    I wonder to what extant the ability to opt out after high school changes these in America. The yeshiva high schools that would be most attractive to artists send the fewest of their kids to YU. The most artistic, individualistic kids will be the ones who feel most detached from their community and the most likely to apply to art school and take off their yarmulke.

    In Israel…. well, there is the matter of the army. There is national service. I would doubt it’s the same thing as going off to school and putting on your yarmulke when you come back to Teaneck for holidays.

  9. Did Norman Lamm like opera? Or did he just like going out for a fancy evening? Did he have any authentic cultural, aesthetic impulse?

    Can you imagine him saying, “what is this thing called rock and roll? how can I learn to appreciate the artistry of the Who?” Or is it easier to imagine him using Roger Daltrey as a straw man by which to prove the superiority of the Hebrew Religion?

    I wonder what the Rav z’l thought about jazz.

  10. I love the anecdotal problem, the assigning of blame to perpetual bugbears (who are meanwhile off fundraising) and then bringing back the Rav for some much needed hypotheticals. This is somewhere in between YU fantasy sports and a Robert Wuthnow book.

  11. I absolutely agree with the author; this is a topic that’s been bothering me recently. There are still examples, today, of the classic story of “The Jazz Singer”: for instance, David Draiman, lead singer for the hard-rock band “Disturbed,” felt that he had to choose between orthodoxy and music because that’s Orthodoxy was presented as a system that stifled normal self-expression. This relates to a point that Gross alluded to, but did not finish in the US, yeshivas don’t educate for the arts; they don’t teach traditional Hebrew poetry of Sephardic rabbis, for instance. In Israel, they do. So Israeli Orthodox kids have models of rabbis going into the “arts.”

  12. Moshe Simkovich

    Re the courageous, those sought after by JJ Gross. Not everyone is suited to the pursuit of arts and music. The “mainstream” person may not go into the arts in any case. Having been the founding Head of School for a MO HS in Philly that deliberately put art and music in the program, I think that there are about 20% of people who naturally express themselves in music and or art, and need (not choose) to do so. Given the opportunity, would an American spend time developing it if the right place gave him a chance?

    Some of the schools in Israel, particularly for women, seem to prove yes. However, I have sensed an attitude that women can entertain such notions, but not guys.

    Relevant to this discussion, I have an interesting experiment going forward. Yishai Breslauer and I have begun putting together a new yeshiva/music program for post HS Chu”l guys who can “pass an audition” and a bechina. The key question: Would such a student spend a year in Israel (or one of two years, if they are of that mind) learning Torah 65% of the time, and studying with expert musicians of the Mizmor School of Music the rest of the time? Of course, it takes a while to get something off the ground – but it will be interesting to see how many will send applications, and what the motivations will be pro/con.

  13. I think there are broader American socioeconomic issues at play than just the high cost of Orthodox Jewish life in the states. There is a huge income gap between the wealthier and poor in America, and the middle class is rapidly shrinking. And those in the upper class often have job that require long hours, thus limiting leisure time.
    You can live a decent standard of living as a musician in Israel, but the same isnt always true in America- and this isnt just true for people wanting to pay yeshiva tuition for 3.2 kids. The number of people who grew up in the American middle class are becoming musicians or artists is shrinking, and that isn’t just among Orthodox jews. These trends are true in most western countries with smaller income gaps than in america (and on a micro-level, US cities with lower costs of living attract more artists). In addition- due to the kuppah holim system, all Israelis have health insurance even while working as starving artists; Americans dont have the same security net.
    Maybe the decision to pursue art despite the economic downsides is a matter of ‘courage,’ but I wouldn’t paint it as a courage emanating from zionist ideology or IDF service, its a question of what risks do people take given certain economic opportunities and consequences.

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