Floodgate or dead end?  

Írta: Szombat - Rovat: Archívum, English


Gábor T. Szántó

Floodgate or dead end?

Jewish culture in Europe:
its role and value in Jewish identity


Whenever and wherever we speak of Jewish culture, we rarely think in terms of traditional Jewry. In effect, we tend to speak of Jewish culture from the moment when traditional Jewish communities broke up, when religion and its rites began to decline and when, as part of the process of secularization, the walls of the ghetto, of a closed Jewish society, erected by a religious consciousness that also included ethnicity and devotion to the Law, began to crumble. And although we are all familiar with the literature imbued with the spirit of traditional Jewish way of life and thought, the world of agadic stories, the poetry of the piyyutim and medieval Hebrew poetry which gradually slip away from it, with the Hassidic legends of a later age, with Jewish liturgical and folk music, the latter enjoying increasing popularity nowadays, when we speak of the values of European Jewish culture we usually think of secular works. My own train of thoughts is essentially based on this concept.

The 18th-19th centuries witnessed the outflow from the ghetto of a spirit hungry for the world and even though the greater part of the succeeding Jewish generations could still boast a traditional education, most of this education was, so to say, acquired from habit, a consequence of loyalty to the parents and of childhood learning. The attention of the new generations shifted outwards, to the non-Jewish world. The gap between their education and traditional Jewish education and ideals grew wider, becoming oriented to ‘general human values’, even if their Weltanschauung, their thought and the basic motivation behind their actions were still rooted in their background, a fact often quite obvious to themselves, and – more often than not – also to their environment.

It was in this historical moment – which obviously lasted for several decades – which saw the adoption of a non-Jewish tongue and a subtle shift away from Jewry as a way of life that the concept of a secular Jewish culture created by Jews was born and gained its independent (even though it continues to be fiercely debated to this very day): the dissolution of a way of life and mentality, the dissolution of pure spirit into culture, from light into mere reflection was not a rapid and easily concluded process.

This period also saw Jewry become a scholarly discipline in the 19th century and the revelation of the Law a subject of historic criticism. When the Wissenschaft des Judentums was born, traditional Jewry viewed its patrons as traitors. Today – a symbolic indication of the painful changes – in some places these institutions which are still involved in this research remain the last bastions of a Jewish knowledge conceived in tradition and religion – of a Jewish culture, rather than of real-life Jews.

Decades of assimilation, the successive devastation wrought by the Holocaust and – in the less fortunate parts of Europe – the Communist regimes struck a fatal blow to Jewry. In Central and Eastern European traditional Jewry practically ceased to exist in the spiritual sense of the word, their remnants left the region either immediately after the installation of Communism, after the Hungarian uprising, or as one of the ‘commodities’ in the trade in human souls as practiced by the Romanian dictatorship, settling either in the US or in Israel, and the remnant of remnants were slowly eroded. There were some attempts at revival following the fall of the so-called ‘peoples’ democracies’ and the democratic changes in the regions, but it is far too early to say whether a genuine re-vitalization is indeed possible.


We cannot therefore speak of a Jewish intellectual continuity, and this is especially true east of the Elbe; however, the presence of a many-faceted Jewish culture – of Jewish themes and Jewish problems – can be demonstrated despite the decades of censorship in the Soviet-type regimes, even if in some places and to some extent this culture arose from a dialogue between passive artists and active recipients.

A secular Jewish culture evolved and flourished in Poland and Russia from the late 19th-early 20th century, partly in Yiddish, and partly using the medium of the local languages, although in Hungary (while still part of the Monarchy) and in the countries of Western Europe this ethnic-minority variety of Jewry existed only as a hidden current of counter-culture against the mainstream. As a result of differing social development and the spread of liberal ideals in the westerly half of Europe, ethnic consciousness disappeared simultaneously with or at an even faster rate than religiosity.

With the political changes of 1989, freedom unexpectedly dropped into the lap of the remnants of the Central and Eastern European Jewish communities who were – owing to the Shoah and perhaps even more, to the atheist dictatorship and socialization – essentially deaf to, and mostly ignorant of, religious beliefs and practices.

Several of our ‘brethren’, who came either from a left-wing or who had at one point in their life believed in these ideals, discovered an old-new movement, a ‘great narrative’ in the formerly rejected tradition. Some actually chose the world of their ancestors indirectly by following the western model of multi-culturalism, or encouraged by the slogan to search for one’s roots.

The anti-Semitic phrases used by various extreme right political forces which surfaced during the democratic transformation shocked many into the realization that assimilation, in effect, ‘remains unfinished’; they realized that they will always be recognized as Jews even if they themselves had already or would gladly have forgotten their origins.

The greater part of Hungarian Jewry, stunned – and occasionally reacting somewhat paranoically -, was unable to construct a healthy Jewish consciousness in place of their challenged Hungarian identity; at the same time, many are fettered by a ‘negative identity’ – of being neither Jewish, nor Hungarian – as defined by social scientists and irritated by the challenge of self-definition provoked from the outside; however, even those who during the past eight years did find their way back to the community which had perhaps been already abandoned by their grandparents, essentially define their bond within a non-religious framework. More recent surveys have shown that the latter relate to the rediscovered Jewish community through their identity and, depending on their courage, through a cultural or ethnic sense of community. They are the ones who, as ever-curious or more committed consumers with the purpose of strengthening their identity and supporting the community to be revived, are the driving force behind the emergence or rediscovery of Jewish culture.


Even though writers and other artists – as well as public figures in general – usually reject or are uncomfortable when they or their works are publicly defined as Jewish, there has emerged, both in Eastern and Western Europe, a fairly loyal consumer group who devour publications and productions with a Jewish theme or relevance. Passive artists – active recipients, I said a little earlier, and this is hardly a misnomer. Not infrequently, the author regards neither himself, nor his work as specifically Jewish, but his audience nonetheless perceives him as such and searches him out as such. And even though – understandably and naturally – the unchallenged primacy of the first person singular against any collective is an article of faith for any author, he has to accept that his work, once out of his hands, assumes a life of its own and is interpreted through the readers’ experiences and perhaps seen as an answer to questions which the writer had possibly no intention of posing. A not easily definable ‘cultural community’ which lacks a truly crystallized frame of reference and is held together only by a similarity of intellectual interest, searches for footholds and prophets where it can; and it is equally true that a group with an ethnic sense of identity finds it self-evident that the like-minded are part of the group.

Publishers claim that in the Hungary of the 1990s at least 1000-1500 copies of any book written on Jewish themes can be sold on the internal market. Knowing the average print run and the general conditions in book distribution, this number is fairly encouraging and invites a moderate optimism: there must be some Jews out there.

In other words, Jewish cultural products and events have a definite appeal, and this interest is not restricted to the post-Communist countries where Judaica, no longer a forbidden fruit, can now be freely consumed. For entirely different reasons, and owing to the force of the non-Jewish market, Jewish intellectual products are snapped up in Germany. The Germans’ responsible attitude, fuelled in part by feeling of guilt and phantom pain, is all the more noteworthy since it provides an excellent example of how – beyond books and television serials – communities are born: real-life people, the creators of culture in the future. Let me refer to the oft-debated and still controversial support of the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union.


Buying a book, a journal, a record or a CD, buying a ticket for the theatre or a movie is undoubtedly easier than mastering the liturgy or learning Hebrew.

How often have we pledged, after returning from a visit to Israel, that we will definitely learn the language by next year or at least sign up for a language course. And whenever we were the tenth man in a minyan, in a small shul into which we wandered, so to say, ‘accidentally’ and felt the gratefulness and love of the elderly congregation, were we not tempted by the bold thought that we would learn to daven and attend on Shabbat, but at least Friday evenings to help them out. Most of us gradually forgot this resolution and assuaged our later bad conscience with Jewish culture.

Being part of an audience is an anonymous, impersonal relationship to culture, without responsibilities, which, by its very nature, contradicts traditional Jewish thought which has preserved the exhilarating experience of the Exodus from Egypt and the proclamation of the Law at Mt. Sinai as an event to be handed down from generation to generation. An interest in Jewish culture, even if somewhat lop-sided, is nonetheless the maintenance of a dialogue, if not directly with the revelation, if not even with the tradition, with the community, but at least with one register of our personality, in which every sentence, every melody which is even remotely associated with Jewry has a peculiar resonance.


How should the role and value of Jewish culture be defined in Europe (and in the Diaspora), how can it contribute to preserving Jewish identity, knowing that Jewishness can be likened to a sphere, where one half represents religion, the other ethnicity, and that its essence cannot be compared to any other historical community, since in this case the people were created by force of spirit: the act of choosing and being chosen, the exodus and the reception of the Law (Franz Rosenzweig), and that following the fall of the Jewish state in antiquity, the people themselves were preserved in the Diaspora by their steadfast devotion to the constantly refined religious ideology; this, no less, turned this people – if I may say so, without fear of being maliciously misunderstood -, into the people par excellence of world history.

How, then, can we define this role today?

A seed under the snow, embers under the cooling ashes, an escape in time: a bridge between the careless, resignated and the responsible sides of our personality.

We would not be faithful to the tradition if, similarly to all other ‘situations’ and in spite of all our skepticism, we did not regard the present situation as transitional and were not convinced that the future will be more favourable than what lies behind us. But we should remain realists and acknowledge the fact that secular Jewish culture remains the single communications channel through which we can hope to approach those on the periphery and those who do not have a sense of belonging here, who sometimes only suspect their origins which have been concealed from them and who in their solitude and perplexity – concealing their curiosity even from themselves – furtively leaf through Jewish books in bookstores or libraries. Jewish culture can be a medium of forging a link for our generation: a generation which, although uneasy about and shaken out of its religious and ethnic identity, nonetheless tries to maintain a bond with itself, in spite of the havoc wreaked by the individualism, alienation and cultural commercialism of modern consumer societies in the West and by the spiritual destruction wrought by the Communist dictatorship which suppressed all forms of autonomy in the East.


However, we are not merely responsible for our own future. Jewish presence in the Diaspora is two-faced, absorbing through its capillaries the most unique, most national components from the soil of the locus (but nonetheless preserving its own identity), and at the same enriching this soil with its own intellectual contribution. This might take the form of an ingenious phrase, an unusual melody, a unique blend of colours, a non-verbalizable architectural form or even the meta-language of gestures. Thus the consumer and creator of culture in the Diaspora labours under a double bind and a double loyalty. He is at the same time serving the language community, city, country or region which harbours him, and, naturally, world culture, as well as his own people when he moulds his own experience, viewpoint and knowledge into original works which – beside belonging to a given community – also bear the stamp of his own unique personality; and by expanding his Jewish experience into human experience, he perceives and publishes it as one of its dialects. We are also responsible for enriching the intellectual life of the region which harbours us. The Jewish component, braided into local civilization, offers a self-evident bond to European unification. We must create a quality that is outstanding even by universal standards and which, owing to its excellence, will be attractive to Jews, the outstanding consumers of culture, who might not reach for that product merely because it is Jewish. As a culture, we must remain open to the world in order to become known and approachable, and for our ethnic and religious separation to become understandable, even if not easily acceptable.


Since the Shoah and the failure of assimilation, be it national or international, Jewry which in increasing number chose the position of the European or the cosmopolitan, observes the reality surrounding him from the touch line, from its reverse or from a bottom view. Their approach to all real or perceived forms of extremity is one of wariness, coupled with sensitivity, occasionally a trifle excessively and unjustified. Those who are peace with their Jewishness know all too well that this behaviour is a community strategy that has its own historical rationale. In contrast, most left wing or liberal intellectuals in the political arena give a de-Jewified, ideological reason for their choice of values which has been cut off from this historical rationale, even though their opponents, often professing an emphatically nationalistic ideology, and often even the majority of their constituents identify them as Jews.

This outsider attitude, this bottom view, the sensitivity to other minorities and against exclusion is obviously a distinctive characteristic distilled from Jewish historical experience. The intellectual reflection of this phenomenon, appearing in artistic works that portray human dramas can bring recognition to Jewish culture, but its day to day presence in the political arena nonetheless irritates for the majority. And though it may pave the way leading back to Jewishness, at the other end of the spectrum we have the sublimation of the unexamined identity into cosmopolitan, human rights attitudes, into an attitude of social criticism always on the jump: a dead end from which many intellectuals of Jewish origins are unable to back out.


Books and round-table discussions, conferences and film festivals, exhibitions and happenings, dance houses and concerts can all serve the objective of arousing and maintaining curiosity, the provocation of thoughts and the orientation of those who are unable to ask, to dispel anxieties and fears, as well as to help the lonely find kindred souls – the ensurance of a continuity in the ‘consumers of culture’. We should not be ashamed to admit: the biological survival of the Jewish population.

We are combatants in a long trench warfare: we are fettered by a general indifference to and mistrust of the mere thought of any community and its organization, and the negative connotations which, like seaweeds, have entwined the concept of the Jew.

While Jewish culture was still a forbidden fruit under the Communist dictatorship, we had the hope that the desired freedom would bring a rapid upswing and a wide interest in this respect also. Today we know – and in this respect we have caught up all too rapidly with the West – that we have to dig very deep into the human soul to find the closed cell – if it still exists – and to free this need by cleansing it of the historic slag.

The real question is the definition of the ultimate aim, the ultimate objective of this struggle with the subconscious fears and of the communication through the medium of culture. What can we expect, what can we hope for concerning the future of European and, in a wider sense, of Diaspora Jewry, for which culture can provide a foothold.

I greatly appreciate the achievements of secular Jewish culture created by modern Jewry, whichever of the two vantage points: the Jewish and the universal I view it from, and I am confident that it will remain an important civilizational element and a magnet to Jewish existence for those to whom this remains its single bond. It follows from this that I consider desirable the further growth of this culture and the dissemination of its values in as wide a circle as possible, together with its reception by a primarily, but not exclusively Jewish audience.

This, however, can only contribute to a perspicacity which should provoke a re-thinking of what European Jewry has gone through during the successive cataclysms of the past 100-150 years. In an ideal situation, the first steps in this direction should sooner or later be followed by a change of attitude, whereby this virtual community should regard itself not merely as of Jewish origins, but as Jews, and thereby reinstate itself into its own history and become a real communitas within a reasonable period of time. This turn of events, desirable though it may be, will not necessarily occur, although it could engender a sense of responsibility which would create a community out of an audience, offering the opportunity for each and every one of us to regard the future of Jewry as a personal decision.

Obviously, there is no chance for an ‘in integrum restitutio’. Secularization, assimilation, the Nazi and Communist destruction are irrevocable. But similarly to the seeds which may sprout after the long winter months, and to the flame which can flare up from a single ember, modern secular Jewish culture too can provide an incentive for the desire to learn the principles and practice of Judaism – an opportunity for realizing that living and thinking as observant Jews is neither anachronistic nor impossible, but rather an open dialogue conducted with existence itself, a unique spiritual tradition whose significance can obviously only be grasped after mastering some of this knowledge and by edging closer to this theme.

There comes the point in our journey from Jewish culture back to the tradition when we are compelled to realize: we must transform ourselves from consumers into active participants of this ‘culture’ since the Law and the Narrative must be constantly re-interpreted, and thus we bear the responsibility, a responsibility which no-one else can bear except for us. The knowledge of, the preservation of and the transmission of this world-view is a religious and moral obligation. It is necessary to underline both aspects of this obligation since many are incapable of experiencing the truths in the Written and Oral Law reflecting on transcendentalism on which this culture is based, and are incapable of visualizing themselves within the framework of a mode of thought whose points of reference are determined by religious convictions; and they therefore feel that they have no business here. Belief is a faculty, they say, a matter of grace; however, fidelity to the tradition, increasing one’s knowledge, a community existence, an active acceptance of the common fate and solidarity is an option which is open also to those, who, for one reason or other, do not have this faculty. The responsibility of the mitzvah to “explain to your son” also extends to them. The next generation should also have the option of starting a dialogue with the tradition since its essential feature is the permanent dialogue with it. The perception of religious law and tradition as a culture, of the mitzvot as a moral obligation also opens a way back for those who do not “see the voice”. And once a person becomes a participant instead of a mere bystander or consumer, once reinstated in the 5757 years long narrative in which our ancestors were all actors, he becomes an easy prey: by increasing his knowledge he is suddenly suffused with the feeling that the spirit of the narrative is alive.


We should not delude ourselves that we can expect an ethnic or religious revival to the extent that, as a result of internal social development, Jewry will again be able to create a wide ranging, independent culture (especially in the linguistic sense) outside of Israel and the United States, and we can only hope that history will not force such a need upon us. Decrees from the Council of Europe can hardly revive a language, and can even less bring back the exterminated population which once spoke it. What has remained must of course be preserved, what comes next must obviously be supported, but it seems more than certain that Yiddish will never again be the language of communication between European Jews, and neither will Hebrew become a medium of the Diaspora or the primary carrier of Jewish culture in Europe in the foreseeable future.

As members of various language communities, labouring under – and wrestling with – varying local binds, writers will write their books, those involved with Jewish music will blend regionally differing melodies into something entirely new, and local workshops and vistas will define the creations of painters, theatrical and film artists who perhaps use Jewish themes and motifs. At the same time, we must do our utmost to ensure that we too grasp the opportunity to redefine ourselves and our relation to the Jewish past, the future and ourselves in a Europe which is re-inventing and re-organizing herself. A well-grounded religious knowledge par excellence, however, is a precondition to this dialogue.


Jews in the East and West have much to share after the fall of the Iron Curtain and we must therefore grasp this opportunity. The West can offer its experience in maintaining the democratic institutions and, naturally, a know-how, while Jews from the post-Communist countries can offer their human and community experiences gained under the dictatorship, the dauntlessness of its small élite and its intellectual hunger. We can compare the losses arising from the freedom in the West and the assimilation forced onto us in the East, and the measures that can be taken against them.

We could initiate exchange trips, we could establish a European Jewish travel agency and tourist centre, ensuring that Jewish activists from Europe do not have to travel overseas and meet only on occasions when they are invited to the US. We could organize international conferences and symposia, we should at least try to orchestrate contemporaneous or successive festivals, even if only of symbolic value. Jewish culture should be an attractive media event, edging close to those who would not otherwise visit such events. We could easily schedule Jewish cultural festivals on successive days or weeks, enabling those who are interested to participate in, and compare, several of these, from London to Moscow, from Reykjavik to Gibraltar, as part of, let’s say, the European Jewish Cultural Days, whose events would be accessible on the Internet for those who cannot be present in person.

Couldn’t we create an agency under the aegis of European institutions to support translations and publishing, encouraging thereby the publication of various Jewish texts?

Couldn’t a part of the restitution paid for the atrocities committed against the Jews in the 20th century be used for projects that will intellectually strengthen European Jewry of the 21st century: for financing not only memorials, but also a revival, and for creating not only monuments, but also new life? Wouldn’t this be the most authentic form of restitution, whereby not only Jews, but also a civilization which has become poorer, win something back?

We could organize conferences, as well as Jewish literary, musical and artistic competitions on a European scale. In the past two years such conferences have been organized on all three themes in Hungary, and we have tried to take stock of the hitherto uninventoried dowry: Jewish intellectual presence in the culture of the host country. In the same way that as all jokes are new to a new-born infant, all aspects of freedom are a novelty to us, who have just shaken off the yoke of dictatorship. I can well imagine that the above suggestions do not particularly electrify Jewish scholars and communities in the West, perhaps because they have already completed this stock-taking. But it might still be worthwhile to compare eastern and western experiences in this respect.

Contemplating the scene from Budapest, I cannot escape the strange feeling that the Jews, and not only the Central and Eastern European communities, seem to lag behind in a Europe moving towards unity. The Jews, of all people, who for centuries were in close contact without ideologizing this interbased on the exchange of both goods and intellectual commodities. It seems to me that, while being often accused by our ill-wishers of a large-scale world conspiracy, we do not seek contact with each other with the necessary intensity or skillfulness. Is this really simply a financial question?

It is quite possible that good intentions stumble in the oft rigid, protocol world of officialdom which in the eastern half of the continent is still centralized and hidden from the gaze of the Jewish community. This slightly anachronistic system could be enhanced by a multi-faceted and free communication through the capillaries of culture.

Translated by Magdalena Seleanu


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