When Judaism became cool

Last week, two Catholic friends were married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. After a traditional ceremony, they welcomed guests to a lively reception. While South American and hip-hop music played throughout much of the party, guests also took part in a tradition that has only recently spread beyond the Jewish community in the United States: the Hora. Dancing, singing, and clapping in concentric circles, guests lifted the bride and groom up on chairs in honor of their big day.

Why did two cosmopolitan Latino Catholics carefully place the Hora on their list of must-have celebratory wedding dances? I would suggest that it is but one more example of a seismic shift taking place for American Jews. Jewish culture, religion, and ritual is becoming accessible and beloved in America as never before.

In a rather spicy article for Tablet Magazine, Rachel Shukert argues that Jewish weddings have become trendy, in part because of high-profile Jewish figures marrying non-Jewish partners. Intermarried Jewish stars from the entertainment industry are not forsaking their traditions, as they might have in the past, but rather bringing them to the fore from day one of their marriages. Many of their non-Jewish partners are likewise embracing Jewish traditions, symbols, and marriage ceremonies, even if they have no personal intention of joining Judaism. As Shukert puts it rather colorfully,

That makes the new Mr. and Mrs. Shulman—along with Drew Barrymore and her new husband Will Kopelman, son of former Chanel CEO Arie Kopelman (well done, Drew!) and Her Majesty Queen Natalie Portman and dancer/choreographer Benjamin Millepied—the third celebrity couple to wed under a chuppah this year, with all the ketubah ’n’ glass-smashing fixins, despite having one of the least traditional aspects of all: a partner who isn’t actually Jewish. Doubtless, in some circles this will be seen as a cause for much hand-wringing about the sorrowful state of the Jewish people, but I’m not so concerned. Intermarriage, like homosexuality, has been around since biblical times, and it isn’t going anywhere. If all the royal families of Europe put their crowned heads together and figured they could use some new blood, we could probably stand for some too.

Jewish weddings are in, and it would not be outlandish to forecast that traditions from Jewish weddings (such as the Hora, stepping on the glass, or shouting ‘mazel tov’) might one day may become even more common at weddings in which neither partner is Jewish.

The embrace of Jewish traditions in mainstream American culture now goes far beyond weddings. To the consternation of some, the Bar Mitzvah has become trendy in popular culture, in large part because of the rapper Drake — who remains connected to his Jewish roots and uses Jewish symbols in his work. Earlier this year, Rabbi Daniel Brenner reflected on Drake’s use of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony as a backdrop for his video, “Hell Yeah, F***ing Right” (HYFR):

In the past week, a video of the hip-hop superstar Aubrey Drake Graham has become the most watched bar mitzvah film clip in human history. The video of the song HYFR has garnered more than 1 million viewers on YouTube, and features the 24-year old Drake having a “re-bar mitzvah.”

Whether the video mocks or gives light to the idea of the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony remains a matter of debate. But what is evident is that the Bar Mitzvah is no longer considered a curious event in the lives of America’s Jews. It is now mainstream — as are some of its more visible (if superficial) parts.

Just this fall, (non-Jewish) rapper Rick Ross released an album called “The Black Bar Mitzvah.” While it is doubtful that many of the lyrics relate to the ceremony, or traditional Jewish thought, the album has brought the idea of the Bar Mitzvah further into dialogue with American popular culture. It is not just something that 13 year-old Jews do quietly or with a degree of embarrassment; it’s cool to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Some American Jews may be inclined to approach the growing presence of Jewish rituals in popular culture with concern. They ask whether we are being ‘otherized’ as a community or having our sacred practices undermined. Are we being denigrated? Is this a new low for popular culture and the presence of the American Jewish minority therein?

I would suggest, however, that the appearance of Jewish rituals in popular culture, though at times unnerving, relates to a far more positive trend: a new level of acceptance of and appreciation for the two percent of Americans who identify as Jews.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Justus Baird, in his article, “What if Jews Knew that Americans Love Them?” aptly summarizes the data indicating that American Jews have been embraced by other Americans. From sociological research by Robert Putnam and David Campbell to Pew Forum and Anti-Defamation League studies, there is an abundance of evidence to suggest that anti-Semitic sentiments have fallen off sharply and that Americans may on average actually feel more positively about Jews than any other religious community.

From being sidelined from much of American society, we have emerged as a community that is widely loved. Our symbols and sacred moments are being welcomed and highlighted. Even in popular culture, which has long been more accepting of Jews, our community has gone from being portrayed as interesting, different, or funny to becoming trendy and vogue.

While this new place in American society and culture provides myriad opportunities for the Jewish community to define itself more fully from within, rather than in response to outside pressures, it also poses at least two challenges. The first is in finding a new communal narrative in America. As Rabbi Baird points out, the narrative of anti-Semitism (and our corresponding need to respond to it) is unlikely to find resonance among Jews whose day-to-day lives largely entail positive, rather than negative, reactions to their religious affiliation.

The second is the potential for the American and Israeli communities to drift apart because of their increasingly disparate narratives. Many Israelis can relate more directly to a traditional narrative of the Jewish community, forged by the challenging arc of our people’s history, that includes external threats and our collective responses to them. After all, these are threats that many Israelis quite sadly experience on a day-to-day basis. By contrast, many American Jews, who may not experience these threats so regularly (and, instead, may experience quite the opposite), might orient to their Jewish experiences in entirely different ways. In time, this disparity in communal narratives might mean greater division between the two largest Jewish communities in the world and the potential for friction between them as they articulate and live out different understandings of their communal realities.

Judaism, and even Jewish ritual, is becoming increasingly trendy in America. The question remains, how do we respond?

About the Author
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and a Senior Fellow at CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies. Josh was is in the 2015 - 2016 cohort of Germanacos Fellows and part of the inaugural group of Sinai and Synapses Fellows from 2013 - 2015. Previously, Josh served as Associate Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and before that as Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and Director of Communications for the Coexist Foundation. He is a Founding Editor Emeritus of the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a publication that has enabled inter-religious studies to grow into an academic field of its own. He writes for the Huffington Post and Times of Israel. Josh was one of just six finalists worldwide for the $100,000 Coexist Prize and was additionally highlighted by the Coexist Forum as "one of the foremost Jewish and interreligious bloggers in the world." In 2011, the Huffington Post named him one of the "best Jewish voices on Twitter." The Huffington Post also selected two organizations he helped found as exemplary of those which effectively "have taken their positive interfaith message online." He authored one of "15 Blogs from 2015 that Show How Faith Can Be a Force For Good." Josh has been the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Bridge-Builders Leadership Award from the Interfaith Youth Core, the Associates of Jewish Homes and Services for the Aging’s Annette W. and Herbert H. Lichterman Outstanding Programming Award, the Volunteer Hero Award of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the W. MacLean Johnson Fellowship for Action, the Wiener Education Fellowship, and the Hyman P. Moldover Scholarship for Jewish Communal Service. Josh's work was highlighted in chapter of the official report and proceedings of the UNESCO Chairs for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. A sought-after speaker, Josh has given presentations, speeches, and convocations at seminaries, non-profit organizations, and religious groups across the United States and beyond. Last winter, Josh presented about the next generation of religious leadership at the Holy See's 50th Anniversary celebration of Nostra Aetate at the United Nations. The prior spring, Josh spoke about social media and interfaith dialogue at an international conference on faith and reconciliation in Kosovo (his one third there). He has also spoken at the Pentagon about religious diversity in March 2013; given a presentation about the prevalence of hate crimes against houses of worship during a White House conference in July 2011 and a follow-up presentation at the White House on the potential for Dharmic communities to enhance religious pluralism nationally in April 2012; an address at the 2010 Eighth Annual Doha Conference, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Qatar and the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue; and a Closing Address at the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation at the United Nations in November 2009. Josh has had articles and interviews featured in newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, academic journals, publications, and blogs in ten languages. These include the Associated Press, National Geographic, Washington Post, German National Radio, Swedish National Radio, The Permanent Observer Mission from the Holy See to the United Nations, public radio's Interfaith Voices, the BBC, Vox, the The Daily Beast, The Sydney Herald, JTA, and the blog of the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. Josh has contributed to edited volumes, including Flourishing in the Later Years: Jewish Pastoral Insights on Senior Pastoral Care, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Questions, Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation. Likewise, he has been co-author of a number of academic articles for publications as diverse as Religious Education, Long-Term Living, The Gerontologist, and the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies (a publication he co-founded). Prior to entering rabbinical school, Josh served as an Assistant to the Director of the European Youth Campaign at the Council of Europe and co-Founded Lessons of a Lifetime, a program that improves inter-generational relations through the recording of ethical wills. An alumnus of Amherst College, Josh graduated magna cum laude with majors in history, economics, and Spanish, as well as a certificate in Practical French Language from Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, France.