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The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times

Edited by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jonathan Karp

Publication Year: 2013

The wide-ranging portrayal of modern Jewishness in artistic terms invites scrutiny into the relationship between creativity and the formation of Jewish identity and into the complex issue of what makes a work of art uniquely Jewish. Whether it is the provenance of the artist, as in the case of popular Israeli singer Zehava Ben, the intention of the iconography, as in Ben Shahn's antifascist paintings, or the utopian ideals of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair, clearly no single formula for defining Jewish art in the diaspora will suffice.

The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times is the first work to analyze modern Jewry's engagement with the arts as a whole, including music, theater, dance, film, museums, architecture, painting, sculpture, and more. Working with a broad conception of what counts as art, the book asks the following questions: What roles have commerce and politics played in shaping Jewish artistic agendas? Who determines the Jewishness of art and for what purposes? What role has aesthetics played in reshaping religious traditions and rituals?

This richly illustrated volume illuminates how the arts have helped Jews confront the various challenges of modernity, including cultural adaptation and self-preservation, economic diversification, and ritual transformation. There truly is an art to being Jewish in the modern world—or, alternatively, an art to being modern in the Jewish world—and this collection fully captures its range, diversity, and historical significance.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4


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p. 5-5


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pp. v-vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

This volume originated in the activities of a research group working at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies of the University of Pennsylvania over the course of the academic year 2000–2001. Professors Ezra Mendelsohn and Richard I. Cohen had formulated the proposal for an extended and interdisciplinary...

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pp. 1-19

Much remains to be done if the arts are to figure more fully in Jewish studies and the Jewish experience more fully in the arts disciplines.1 It was with the aim of bringing these fields together that the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania convened the research seminar ‘‘Modern...

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I. Culture, Commerce, and Class

America’s new mass culture industries divided an early twentieth-century New York Jewish community by class and culture. Essays by Nina Warnke, Judith Thissen, and Jonathan Karp illustrate how the struggle between elitist programs for cultural elevation and new and old forms of popular entertainment...

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1. Theater as Educational Institution: Jewish Immigrant Intellectuals and Yiddish Theater Reform

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pp. 23-41

The Russian Jewish radical intellectuals who arrived in the United States during the 1880s and 1890s were instrumental in creating a leftist mass press, a strong Jewish labor movement, and an immigrant Yiddish literature. They also devoted much time and energy to turning the existing commercial Yiddish...

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2. Film and Vaudeville on New York’s Lower East Side

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pp. 42-56

In December 1909, Nathan Fleissig, the manager of a nickel-and-dime theater on New York’s Lower East Side, announced triumphantly that the movies had been defeated and that his theater would be devoted again to ‘‘first class Yiddish variety.’’1 By presenting the shift in programming practice in terms...

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3. Of Maestros and Minstrels: American Jewish Composers between Black Vernacular and European Art Music

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pp. 57-77

This essay describes a contest, informal but nonetheless real, to create the definitively American musical masterpiece. The contest took place during the second and third decades of the twentieth century, a period in which American Jews had begun to play an important role in American musical life. Though...

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II. Siting the Jewish Tomorrow

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pp. 79-81

Scenes of ideological persuasion reshaped the Jewish future by establishing rhetorical and visual ‘‘facts on the ground.’’ Essays by Anna Shternshis, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Anat Helman, and Amy Horowitz all examine the role of aestheticized ideology in the twentieth-century Jewish experience. How have...

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4. May Day, Tractors, and Piglets: Yiddish Songs for Little Communists

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pp. 83-97

Grigorii B., an eighty-two-year-old retired businessman, takes his daily stroll to his neighborhood coffee shop in midtown Manhattan. Grigorii was born in the Ukrainian shtetl Orynin in 1918. On one beautiful April afternoon, I join Grigorii to learn details of his remarkable life story. After he lost his...

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5. Performing the State: The Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, 1939/40

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pp. 98-115

World’s fairs became a prime site for transforming the Holy Land into the Jewish homeland. For most of the history of world’s fairs, Jews were defined as a religious group and were included in parliaments, halls, temples, and exhibitions of religion. This was by no means the only context in which Jews might be found...

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6. Was There Anything Particularly Jewish about ‘‘The First Hebrew City’’?

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pp. 116-127

A Zionist promotion pamphlet from 1936 describes Tel Aviv as ‘‘the youngest and boldest of all Hebrew cities in Palestine, a wonder city that sprang out, almost instantly, from the sand dunes . . . A symbol and demonstration of the people of Israel’s political recovery and of the Jewish creative force, revived in its ancient...

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7. Re-Routing Roots: Zehava Ben’s Journey between Shuk and Suk

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pp. 128-143

In 1990, Zehava Ben made her commercial cassette debut in the outdoor marketplace (shuk) at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. In market booths far from the sophisticated Dizengoff Center, the chic northside cafes, and the rejuvenated beach promenades, Zehava Ben’s cassettes occupied retail space next...

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III. Lost in Place

Territorially specific sitings of the Jewish tomorrow, whether in Palestine or the Soviet Union, stand in contrast with diaspora, a condition of displacement and ubiquity whose enduring emblem is the ‘‘Wandering Jew.’’ In this section, essays by Richard I. Cohen and Carol Zemel offer contrasting artistic...

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8. The ‘‘Wandering Jew’’ from Medieval Legend to Modern Metaphor

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pp. 147-175

Wanderers—real and fictional—have engaged the imagination in different cultures and times. For the settled and the sedentary, they arouse a sense of fear and attraction, offering a glimpse of another world and of other civilizations, appearing in moments of crisis and tension, at junctures of a...

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9. Diasporic Values in Contemporary Art: Kitaj, Katchor, Frenkel

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pp. 176-191

I begin with a challenge posed in the epigraphs cited above concerning life in Jewish diaspora, and the nature of artistic production in that environment. For the painter R. B. Kitaj, writing in his aphoristic manifesto of 1989 and coining in it the notion of ‘‘Diasporism’’ in modern art, the situation is fundamentally ambivalent...

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IV. Portraits of the Artist as Jew

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pp. 193-209

When is ‘‘Jewish’’ pertinent to the evaluation of an artist and his or her work? This question remains central to analyses of modern Jewish art in particular, since the ambiguity of Jewish identity, though hardly absent from earlier eras, is a hallmark of the modern age. In this section, essays by Diana...

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10. Modern? American? Jew? Museums and Exhibitions of Ben Shahn’s Late Paintings

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pp. 197-207

The year 1998 marked the centennial of the birth of artist Ben Shahn (1898–1969). Coupled with the approach of the millennium, which many museums celebrated by surveying the cultural production of the twentieth century, the centennial offered a perfect opportunity to mount a major...

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11. Max Liebermann and the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter

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pp. 208-227

Between the years 1905 and 1909, Max Liebermann devoted his energies to a series of paintings and a production of numerous etchings that have the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter as their theme. He was then fifty-eight years old, and at the height of his powers: president of the Berliner Sezession, member of the Prussian...

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12. Rome and Jerusalem: The Figure of Jesus in the Creation of Mark Antokol’skii

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pp. 228-253

Throughout his prolific career, the Russian sculptor Mark Matveevich Antokol’skii (1841–1902) subjected his Jewishness to polemical negotiation in the name of Russian art. The persona of Russia’s first modern Jewish artist emerged against the background of nineteenth-century populist discourse...

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V. In Search of a Usable Aesthetic

One of the central questions asked by this volume is whether the modern Jewish experience has in some sense been a pointedly artistic one. Or, to put it otherwise, what does it mean to define Jewish experience principally in aesthetic terms? The essays by Zachary Braiterman, Mark Kligman, and Hankus Netsky...

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13. A Modern Mitzvah-Space-Aesthetic: The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig

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pp. 257-269

What drew Franz Rosenzweig, a champion of so-called German Jewish renaissance, into Judaism and its ritual? Born in 1886 to a middle-class assimilated family from Cassel, Rosenzweig emerges from early letters and diaries as an indulged and precocious son. In particular, the letters detail his relationship...

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14. Reestablishing a ‘‘Jewish Spirit’’ in American Synagogue Music: The Music of A. W. Binder

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pp. 270-287

During the first half of the twentieth century, Abraham Wolf Binder (1895– 1966) rose to prominence as a prolific composer of synagogue music and champion of Jewish music. According music a central role in religious experience, Binder was concerned that synagogue attendance was waning because congregants...

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15. The Evolution of Philadelphia’s Russian Sher Medley

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pp. 288-314

This essay traces the history of the Philadelphia Russian Sher medley, the musicians who created it, and the community that reveled to it in their celebrations, from the late nineteenth century to the present. While many other dance tunes, including bulgars, freylekhs, horas, a mezinke medley celebrating...

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VI. Hotel Terminus

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pp. 315-317

The inherently unstable interdependency of history and memory has dominated recent discussions of the Holocaust, with aesthetics and the arts figuring importantly in this dynamic. Two essays, Charles Dellheim’s ‘‘Framing Nazi Art Loot’’ and Marion Kant’s ‘‘Lewitan and the Nazification of Dance,’’ examine how Nazi determinations of aesthetic...

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16. Framing Nazi Art Loot

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pp. 319-334

‘‘Does the painting of that Jewish girl have to hang there? Does the boy have to sleep under the painting of that Jewish girl?’’ asked the boy’s mother.2 The disputed object depicted a girl and a lizard ‘‘looking at each other and not looking at each other, the girl gazing dreamily toward the lizard, the lizard...

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17. Joseph Lewitan and the Nazification of Dance in Germany

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pp. 335-352

This is the story of a forgotten man. Joseph Lewitan, one of the most important modern dance critics in Germany during the interwar years, has been virtually lost to history, a casualty of the fate of dance and those who wrote about it during the Nazi period.1 German modern dance was the only modern art...

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18. History, Memory, and Moral Judgment in Documentary Film: On Marcel Ophuls’s Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie

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pp. 353-379

In an essay published more than forty years ago, Theodor Adorno asked the question: What does it mean to ‘‘work up,’’ to ‘‘process,’’ or—as the English translation puts it—to ‘‘come to terms with’’ the past? (Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit). The word...


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pp. 381-443

Notes on Contributors

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pp. 445-449


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pp. 451-464

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208863
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812220476

Page Count: 464
Publication Year: 2013