Who is Zeus?

I am back from Poland. Next week I hope to get around to posting some observations about the trip and maybe some pictures. I always mistakenly think that I will be able to continue blogging overseas. I still have to return and finish the discussion of Richard Miller. I am home and working at my computer the upcoming weeks, so expect a larger than usual number of blog posts.

Someone who spent Passover in Crete with the many other people who were there, went during Chol HaMoad to visit the cave that is ascribed as the mythic birthplace of Zeus.

When the person returned to the hotel, one of the Brooklyn Jews asked: “Who is Zeus?

What is the cultural literacy of the community. Old time Orthodoxy knew in a nerdy factoid way lots and lots of cultural knowledge and could compete in any college bowl type competition. Has Orthodox cultural literacy changed? Has it changed the nature of the community? People frame the study of secular studies in terms of value for an adult life and for thought, but what about basic elementary school cultural literacy? E.D. Hirsch, in his 1987 bestseller Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know claimed that cultural literacy is the ability to converse fluently in the idioms, allusions, and informal content that creates and constitutes a dominant culture. Is Orthodoxy outside of dominant culture and unable to answer basic questions? Does it put them in the same rubric as Snooki of Jersey Shore who cannot answer these basics?
What should be the role of cultural literacy?

17 responses to “Who is Zeus?

  1. The person who didn’t know who Zeus probably had some idea of who Snooki is. I’ve definitely noticed that it’s been getting harder to put together a reasonably competitive game of trivial pursuit.

    • “I’ve definitely noticed that it’s been getting harder to put together a reasonably competitive game of trivial pursuit”

      In the same vein, notice how Trivial Pursuit now comes in editions that favor the sort of questions that are about Snooki (and not Plato).

      • I’m in favor of playing the original genus editions. But I do have version 6 and the 20th anniversary edition as well.

        Apropos this discussion, a rabbi just won on Jeopardy.

  2. I’m not sure whether I buy this as a general trend. When I look around at my friends and peers, most of whom are in their late 20s, and many of whom are graduates of Modern Orthodox day schools, almost all of them are extremely culturally literate. They know who both Zeus and Snooki are, and have a sense that they should be embarrassed about Snooki (I’m not saying I agree they should, but that seems to be the consensus). Topics of conversation at Shabbat tables run from Jesse James’ recently publish memoir, to sugyot in Eizehu Neshekh, to the question of romance in Jane Austen , to divrei Torah on the parasha. While I don’t know how representative my social circle is (and I should say, not everybody is conversant with every issue on that list, but they aren’t totally lost either), there is certainly a segment of the college educated Modern Orthodox community that remains culturally literate both in Jewish and general culture. Take this as a small set of data points, not a comment on the community as a whole.

    • The person without knowledge of Zeus was Yeshivish/Hasidic, Boro Park based, and has no Modern Orthodox connections.

      • What “old-time” Orthodoxy was both yeshivish/hassidic and “knew in a nerdy factoid way lots and lots of cultural knowledge and could compete in any college bowl type competition?” That’s a sincere question. I’m not sure what lost segment of Orthodoxy you’re pointing to here. Were there ever Hassidim who had broad cultural literacy in America, and remained attached to hassidism?

      • Alan Brill

        Jesse,
        We seem to be crossing wires. Maybe I dont understand.
        The person in Crete was Yeshivish/hasidish circa 2011.
        The geeky knowledge was 1950’s Yeshivish/modern who read encyclopedia and almanacs. In my time, I associated it with Flatbush. They were non-Hasidic and read a lot.
        No one is questioning your knowledge of Zeus.

      • Dr. Brill,
        I apologize, I must be misreading you. I read this: “What is the cultural literacy of the community. Old time Orthodoxy knew in a nerdy factoid way lots and lots of cultural knowledge and could compete in any college bowl type competition. Has Orthodox cultural literacy changed?”
        I understood that you were looking at “old time Orthodoxy” as culturally literate, and seeing this fellow as an example which might reflect a decline in Orthodox cultural literacy. I was presenting some of my acquaintances as counter-examples. When you said that he is hassidish/yeshivish, I was confused, because to me that meant that he was not from the population one would expect to be culturally literate, even 60 years ago (or whenever you meant by “old time.”) So what could he tell us about a potential change? I never took you to be impugning my knowledge of Zeus.

  3. A Jew from Brooklyn…hmmm…2 million people in Brooklyn, lots of Jews, many neighborhoods. So let’s look a little closer .Few if any chasidim living in Williamsburg, Crown Heights or Borough Park get to go away for Pesach with their family to Crete. Nor do the Russians from Brighton Beach. We are talking of a well- to- do chasidish style SUV guy, let’s say from Flatbush, that can afford to take a spouse, children, grandchildren to a ritzy resort. Being yeshivish we know he is literate in Torah, maybe a bit more than literate. Being comfortable, as they say, we know he will marry off his children to children of other bourgeois families, and that these kids will have enough capital behind them to study for a profession or establish a business. And we now know he never heard of Zeus. I say this isn’t a tragedy (nisht geferlich)…more than enough Jews and others know lots about Zeus. So he is culturally illiterate, he has been successful in the main life tasks; the rest is optional.
    But let’s consider some other Brooklyn neighborhoods, Park Slope, Borem Hill, N. Williamsburg, Red Hook etc. where there are many young 30’s -something Jews, all of whom know lots about Zeus, but few understand why people would choose Pesach to be on a cruise. These are not Arthur Green chabura-temple Jews. These people are not shul people, or book club people or particularly spiritual or Zionist. The women do yoga, they eat organic food from the coop, and they manically try to put together a life where both parents work and the kids receive quality care. This Brooklyn is creative Brooklyn. There is a serious and lively avant garde Jewish music scene. Many of the next generation of Jewish novelists live here, Jonathan Safran Foer and his better half, the very fine writer Nicole Krauss to name just two of the luminaries. These are creative uber-urban people, living primarily in the contemporary world, who have some Jewish consciousness. Here the Arthur Green program has little to offer. What to do here? Now that’s an interesting problem.

  4. Lawrence Kaplan

    “Old time Orthodoxy knew in a nerdy factoid way lots and lots of cultural knowledge and could compete in any college bowl type competition.”

    Gee Alan, thanks. That makes me feel soooo good. Such sensitivity on your part.

    For the record, I never spent my time reading enclopedias and almanacs. But, then, I guess I don’t really qualify as Yeshivishe /modern.

  5. EJ-

    “These are creative uber-urban people, living primarily in the contemporary world, who have some Jewish consciousness. Here the Arthur Green program has little to offer.”

    I’d be curious for you to flesh out this claim a little. I personally fit pretty well into the “creative uber-urban people” category you described above (i.e. I am an artist in a community of radical artists living in Oakland, CA; I lived in Greenpoint and N. Williamsburg for a few years) and I also find Art Green’s approach inspiring and useful. I was raised within liberal Judaism–Reconstructionist and Reform–and at a certain point in my life it seemed that the holy kavannah was not there. “God” had become a catch phrase, one way of talking about our predisposed values and beliefs. Art Green calls for a renewed attention to holiness and hashem without skating around negative beliefs about revelation at Sinai and the other literal truths accepted by our ancient teachers. Also, by not identifying with an institutionalized denomination Green opens up space for more pluralistic Jewish practice. To me this does seem like a program for the Other Brooklyn, or at least for those within that demographic who wish to create a spiritual Jewish life.

  6. Mark E. D. …You’re last sentence says it all. Arthur Green has created a theology for the other Brooklyn that would speak to “those within that demographic who wish to create a spiritual Jewish life.” I would maintain the other Brooklyn for the most part is not interested in spiritual Jewish life, in the sense in which Green tries to give it some definite meaning. Many of them are conscious Jews with some Jewish education, (think of Joshua Cohen and his gargantuan unreadable novel Witz), no chip on their shoulder, and no big theological issues; they’re just not interested in working on oneself, meditation, study of texts, tikun haolam. Besides they’re so busy trying to survive and advance their careers they have no time to take life slowly. They might have a Friday night dinner, maybe light candles, but then they’re done. Green’s program works for seekers with issues, halachic, theological, political, etc. Green shares the assumption of many rabbis, that if they could only tweak the services in the right way, and clean up some of the archaic features of the tradition people will be lining up to join. Compared to the Jewish population, the few synagogues in these areas are empty.

    I hope these non-spiritual urban Jews can be brought closer to the larger Jewish community, but I don’t think it can be done with the shuls. These are culture people; they read the novels, they know the movies, etc. Their bible is the NY Times, some magazines and some cool websites. Arthur Green’s proposals are just not competitive with the best that a sophisticated NY culture has to offer. The uber-urbans vulnerability is their children’s education. The choices seem to be expensive prep school places like St Catherines, public school, or some progressive Schechter-like day school, like the one that is developing in Prospect Heights (?) I feel, as I am sure you do, that this segment of the Jewish population is important for the Jewish future, and ought to be given special attention.

    • EJ-

      Yes, I agree with you. And now I understand your original comment better. You are not asking about which forms of worship and faith would be appropriate for the uber-urbans, but rather what modes of peoplehood. This is a very good question and it is a hard one. American culture promotes each individual’s radical departure from legacy and tradition. Many (especially Ashkenazi) Jews in the US feel that their jewishness is a choice, one consumer identity in the autonomous complex of “me.” This form of Yiddishkeit (as I see it in California) depends on an exotic image of hasidim, or of the Lower East Side in the 30s, or of Israel, or the shtetl–anything but this secular American Jewish life right now right here. It is not based on real communal practices, but rather on alienated memories. What can lend authenticity to Jewish lives that are non-traditional and non-represented as “Jewish?” Heeb magazine was one somewhat bizarre attempt at answering this question. The Radical Jewish Culture series from John Zorn’s Tzadik Records is another interesting Jewish-cool phenomenon. I think these are steps.

  7. lawrence kaplan

    I guess I am not as famous as I thought, and only people of a certain age know I was on College Bowl for YU. A salutary lesson in humilty and reminder of the vagaries of fame.

  8. I was on the Flatbush college bowl team.

    Here’s my take: Orthodoxy still has that group of people, in the same numbers (in absolute terms) as in the past. It’s just that, whereas in the past their less-trivia-inclined friends would leave Orthodoxy, now they stay in the community and obscure the nerds.

  9. I wonder what percentage of American college graduates know who Zeus is.

    Oddly enough, ngrams shows an increase in Zeus citations in the last years of the 20th century. And Zeus tops Zion, pulling ahead around 1990.

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