Jewish culture takes courage

What is lacking is not Jewish culture, but Jewish courage. 

James Loeffler introduces his essay “The Death of Jewish culture” with an anecdote situated on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. I lived on the 99th and Riverside for several years, actually became Jewish in the Westside Mikvah, and am unashamedly nostalgic about the neighborhood.

Meanwhile here in Norway: May 17th 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Norwegian constitution, celebrated for various obvious reasons but also controversial because of a clause in its second paragraph: “Jews will continue to be barred from the kingdom.” (The clause was removed in 1851).

In one of Norway’s largest newspapers yesterday, VG, six prominent Norwegian Jews were asked about their lives here. Life as a Norwegian Jew is pretty good, they all said, but they also have worries: there are undercurrents, subtle signs, some empirical evidence that attitudes towards Jews haven’t progressed as much in the last 200 years as many hope.

The question put to Norwegian Jews in 2014 is this: do you fear for your physical survival or safety? Not often. Does Norway offer an environment that allows basic Jewish institutions to keep their doors open? Yes, for now. 

There is little beyond these modest ambitions. Norway is satisfied to be a country with citizens who identify as Jews and observe Jewish traditions, provided it isn’t too different from, or challenges, the mainstream culture. Being a Norwegian Jew requires finding a tenuous balance between: on the one hand proving that you accept majority’s norms for acceptable behavior; and insisting (without making too much trouble) that the majority accept your right to be different from them.

Sure, you can be Jewish as long as you tone it down so that nobody is the least bit uncomfortable about it.

How to reconcile Loeffler’s thesis and reality on the Norwegian ground is simple superficially: there are about five million American Jews and somewhat less than two thousand Norwegians who are more or less likely identify as Jewish.

Both, I think, have in common the impulse to subordinate Jewish sensibilities to a broader secular culture, fearing that the Jewishness might seem archaic, sentimental, theistic, or even arrogant. Speak too loudly, too defiantly, too confidently, and the Jewish thing seems like a nuisance, and imposition. We don’t want anyone to be bothered.

And yet, to anyone who studies the whole system of rabbinic literature, studies dietary laws, history, music both sacred and profane, language, and the many other records of culture that the diverse Jewish experience has produced, it is abundantly clear that Yiddishkeit has been and continues to be profoundly relevant to the future of our civilization.

We need to dial it up, both because it is essential in the continued formation of a Jewish identity, and because we have a responsibility to improve the world we live in. And finally, because we seriously have nothing to be ashamed of.

I have no idea what Jewish culture – however you define it – will consist of in 100 years, but I think we have to start by being assertive about its profound importance both for us and the world we live in.

About the Author
Leif Knutsen writes on Jewish and Israeli issues. He recently returned to Norway after 20 years in the New York area