With the sounds of the shofar and the powerful and transformative melody of Kol Nidre still echoing within us, why I am writing about the importance of culture in Jewish life? The reason is straightforward: The creation and enjoyment of Jewish culture can serve as portals into greater Jewish engagement, just as attendance at High Holy Days services provides attendees with an important sense of community and continuity.
In this pluralistic age, there are many ways for individuals to embrace what is called “Jewish peoplehood” or “Jewish collective belonging.” Whether it is a film screening, a concert or a visit to an art exhibition, cultural phenomena bring us on a journey through time as well as place.
When we view a documentary about the journey of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, a life-affirming cinematic collage of personal narratives of Holocaust survivors, or a film that explores Jewish self-definition by a host of Jewish directors and writers from around the world, we come away more deeply connected to the global Jewish community. So, too, with concerts that feature different musical styles and traditions. Cultural events can take us out of our own silos so that we are better able to experience our common roots.
The power of cultural events to speak meaningfully to a broad swath of the Jewish population was a major factor in the creation of the East Bay’s new celebration of Jewish books, “Under One Tent Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival,” which starts later this month and continues through the spring. Whereas our previous book festival was a dual program of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and the Contra Costa JCC, this new program is sponsored by all of the synagogues and Jewish organizations serving Contra Costa County, including the Jewish federation and the CCJCC, and events take place in a variety of venues.
As for my own story, it was the cultural world, literature in particular, that brought me into an appreciation of Judaism. Although my parents told me some time during my childhood that I was Jewish, there was nothing in our household that informed me of my religion. Growing up, I lived in a very secular home where there were neither the lighting of candles at Chanukah nor the enjoyment of the Passover traditions. We resided far away from Jewish relatives who might have been able to share their knowledge and practices with me.
So how did someone raised in a totally assimilated environment, where Judaism certainly was not practiced nor even discussed, develop a passion for it?
When I was 16, over a dinner with my favorite uncle visiting from Italy, I asked why I should identify as a Jew. Over the next few years, he sent me books: nonfiction ones that traced Jewish history from the biblical period to contemporary Israel, biographies of American Jewish immigrants, and a wide array of fictional works by numerous Jewish authors. There were Chaim Potok’s novels about cultural confrontation, the dark allegorical short stories of Bernard Malamud, and the larger-than-life heroes and heroines of Leon Uris. Philip Roth was there, too, with his controversial (at the time) “Goodbye, Columbus,” as was the great philosophical Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
Despite my Judaism-less home, books gave me Jewish “memory,” an understanding of Jewish traditions, and a growing passion to know more. With each book, I discovered new Jewish landscapes. At first I took baby steps, studying Hebrew and going on Shabbat to the synagogue my great-grandfather attended. Later, I lived in Israel. Much later, I joined the staff of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, where I continue to work today. Books led me on a personal journey of discovery that gave me knowledge and self-esteem. When I read a “Jewish” book these days — whether fiction or nonfiction — I continue that important journey.
Will Jewish cultural programs increase affiliation with synagogues and other Jewish organizations? Certainly there are no guarantees, but creating and sustaining Jewish cultural programming can affect attitudes as well as behavior, and decrease feelings of marginalization. The deliverance of high-quality cultural experiences that showcase the many different ways of Jewish involvement can open doors that lead to further Jewish education, greater affiliation and more meaningful connection.
Riva Gambert is the director of the Partnership for Israel and the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, both programs of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay.