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For religious Jewish culture, see Judaism and Yiddishkeit.

Secular Jewish culture embraces several related phenomena; above all, it is the culture of secular communities of Jewish people, but it can also include the cultural contributions of individuals who identify as secular Jews.

The community of Jewish people is generally considered to be an ethnoreligious rather than solely a religious grouping; Judaism guides its adherents in both practice and belief, so that it has been called not only a religion, but also a "way of life". This makes it difficult to draw a clear distinction between the cultural production of members of the Jewish people, and culture that is specifically Jewish. Furthermore, not all individuals or all cultural phenomena can be easily classified as either "secular" or "religious", a distinction native to European Enlightenment thinking and foreign to most of the history of non-European Jews.

Throughout history, in eras and places as diverse as the ancient Hellenic world, in Europe before and after the Age of Enlightenment, in Islamic Spain and Portugal, in North Africa and the Middle East, in India and China, and in the contemporary United States and Israel, Jewish communities have seen the development of cultural phenomena that are in some sense characteristically Jewish without being at all specifically religious. Some factors in this come from within Judaism, others from the interaction of Jews with others around them, and others from the inner social and cultural dynamics of the community, as opposed to religion itself. This phenomenon has led to considerably different Jewish cultures unique to their own communities, each as authentically Jewish as the next.


For at least 2,000 years, there has not been a unity of Jewish culture. Jews during this period were always geographically dispersed (see Jewish diaspora), so that by the 19th century the Ashkenazi Jews were mainly in Europe, especially Eastern Europe; the Sephardi Jews were largely spread among various communities in North Africa, Turkey, and various smaller communities in a diverse range of other locations; Mizrahi Jews were primarily spread around the Arab world; and other populations of Jews were scattered in such places as Ethiopia the Caucasus, and India. (See Jewish ethnic divisions.)

Although there was a high degree of communication and traffic between these communities — many Sephardic exiles blended into the Central European Ashkenazi community following the Spanish Inquisition; many Ashkenazim migrated to the Middle East, giving rise to the characteristic Syrian-Jewish family name "Ashkenazi"; Iraqi-Jewish traders formed a distinct Jewish community in India; and so forth — many of these populations were cut off to some degree from the surrounding cultures by ghettoization, by Muslim laws of dhimma, and other circumstances.

By 1931, shortly before the Holocaust, 92% of the world's Jewish population was Ashkenazi in origin, including the vast majority of European and of English-speaking Jews. Moreover, secularism as a concept was largely a European idea, and a series of movements in Europe militated for a new, heretofore unheard-of concept called "secular Judaism". For these reasons, much of what is thought of by English-speakers and, to a lesser extent, by non-English-speaking Europeans as "secular Jewish culture" is, in essence, the Jewish culture of Central and Eastern Europe, and its subsequent development in North America.

Medieval Jewish communities in Eastern Europe continued to display distinct cultural traits over the centuries. Despite the universalist leanings of the Enlightenment (and its echo within Judaism in the Haskalah movement), many Yiddish-speaking Jews in Eastern Europe continued to see themselves as forming a distinct national group — " 'am yehudi", from the Biblical Hebrew — but, adapting this idea to European Enlightenment values, they assimilated the concept as that of an ethnic group whose identity did not depend on religion, which under Enlightenment thinking fell under a separate category.

Constantin Măciucă writes of "a differentiated but not isolated Jewish spirit" permeating the culture of Yiddish-speaking Jews.[1] This was only intensified as the rise of Romanticism amplified the sense of national identity across Europe generally. Thus, for example, members of the General Jewish Labour Bund in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were generally non-religious, and one of the historical leaders of the Bund was the child of converts to Christianity, though not a practising or believing Christian himself.

The Haskalah combined with the Jewish Emancipation movement under way in Central and Western Europe to create an opportunity for Jews to enter secular society. At the same time, pogroms in Eastern Europe provoked a surge of migration, in large part to the United States, where some 2 million Jewish immigrants resettled between 1880 and 1920. During the 1940s, the Holocaust uprooted and destroyed most of the European Jewish population. This, in combination with the creation of the State of Israel and the consequent Jewish exodus from Arab lands, resulted in a further geographic shift.

Defining secular culture among those who practice traditional Judaism is difficult, because the entire culture is, by definition, entwined with religious traditions: the idea of separate ethnic and religious identity is foreign to the Hebrew tradition of an " 'am yisrael". (This is particularly true for Orthodox Judaism.) Gary Tobin, head of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, said of traditional Jewish culture:

The dichotomy between religion and culture doesn’t really exist. Every religious attribute is filled with culture; every cultural act filled with religiosity. Synagogues themselves are great centers of Jewish culture. After all, what is life really about? Food, relationships, enrichment hellip; So is Jewish life. So many of our traditions inherently contain aspects of culture. Look at the Passover Seder — it's essentially great theater. Jewish education and religiosity bereft of culture is not as interesting.[2]

Yaakov Malkin, Professor of Aesthetics and Rhetoric at Tel Aviv University and the founder and academic director of Meitar College for Judaism as Culture[4] in Jerusalem, writes:

Today very many secular Jews take part in Jewish cultural activities, such as celebrating Jewish holidays as historical and nature festivals, imbued with new content and form, or marking life-cycle events such as birth, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, and mourning in a secular fashion. They come together to study topics pertaining to Jewish culture and its relation to other cultures, in havurot, cultural associations, and secular synagogues, and they participate in public and political action co-ordinated by secular Jewish movements, such as the former movement to free Soviet Jews, and movements to combat pogroms, discrimination, and religious coercion. Jewish secular humanistic education inculcates universal moral values through classic Jewish and world literature and through organizations for social change that aspire to ideals of justice and charity.[3]

Today, in North America, the secular and cultural Jewish movements are divided into three umbrella organizations: the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ), the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO), and Workmen's Circle.


Literary and theatrical expressions of secular Jewish culture may be in specifically Jewish languages such as Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino, or it may be in the language of the surrounding cultures, such as English or German. Secular literature and theater in Yiddish largely began in the 19th century and was in decline by the middle of the 20th century. The revival of Hebrew beyond its use in the liturgy is largely an early 20th-century phenomenon, and is closely associated with Zionism. Apart from the use of Hebrew in Israel, whether a Jewish community will speak a Jewish or non-Jewish language as its main vehicle of discourse is generally dependent on how isolated or assimilated that community is. For example, the Jews in the shtetls of Poland and the Lower East Side of New York during the early 20th century spoke Yiddish at most times, while assimilated Jews in 19th and early 20th-century Germany spoke German, and American-born Jews in the United States speak English.

Politics and morals

A Bundist demonstration, 1917

See main article Jewish political movements.

Even in religious Judaism there is much room for a range of political or moral views; this diversity is even more apparent among secular Jews. However, even Jewish secular culture is often strongly influenced by moral beliefs deriving from Jewish scripture and tradition. In recent centuries, Jews in Europe and the Americas have traditionally tended towards the political left, and played key roles in the birth of the labor movement as well as socialism. While Diaspora Jews have also been represented in the conservative side of the political spectrum, even politically conservative Jews have tended to support pluralism more consistently than many other elements of the political right. Some scholars[4] attribute this to the fact that Jews are not expected to proselytize, and as a result do not expect a single world-state, which differs from the beliefs of many religions, such as the Roman Catholic and Islamic traditions. This lack of a universalizing religion is combined with the fact that most Jews live as minorities in their countries, and that no central Jewish religious authority has existed for over 2,000 years. (See also list of Jews in politics, which illustrates the diversity of Jewish political thought and of the roles Jews have played in politics.)

Professions associated with Jews

Jews historically have been associated with a number of professions, from banking and finance to (in the case of the Bene Israel of Raigad in Maharashtra, India) oil pressing. In the modern world, intellectual professions have traditionally been considered particularly "Jewish." These include banking and finance, law, medicine, science, social sciences, psychology, academia, and more recently computers. See also Court Jew. This occupational preference is probably even more relevant to many Mizrahi Jews, as well as Kurdish Jews, who looked down on farming and were highly represented in these fields.

Banking and finance

In the Middle Ages, European laws prevented Jews from owning land and gave them powerful incentive to go into other professions that Europeans were not willing to do.[5] During the medieval period, there was a strong social stigma against lending money and charging interest among the Christian majority. In most of Europe until the late 18th century, and in some places to an even later date, Jews were prohibited by Roman Catholic governments (and others) from owning land. On the other hand, the Church, because of a number of Bible verses (e.g., Leviticus 25:36) forbidding usury, declared that charging any interest was against the divine law, and this prevented any mercantile use of capital by pious Christians. As the Canon law did not apply to Jews, they were not liable to the ecclesiastical punishments which were placed upon usurers by the popes. Christian rulers gradually saw the advantage of having a class of men like the Jews who could supply capital for their use without being liable to excommunication, and so the money trade of western Europe by this means fell into the hands of the Jews.

However, in almost every instance where large amounts were acquired by Jews through banking transactions the property thus acquired fell either during their life or upon their death into the hands of the king. This happened to Aaron of Lincoln in England, Ezmel de Ablitas in Navarre, Heliot de Vesoul in Provence, Benveniste de Porta in Aragon, etc. It was often for this reason that kings supported the Jews, and even objected to them becoming Christians (because in that case they could not be forced to give up money won by usury). Thus, both in England and in France the kings demanded to be compensated for every Jew converted. This type of royal trickery was one factor in creating the stereotypical Jewish role of banker and/or merchant.

As a modern system of capital began to develop, loans became necessary for commerce and industry. Jews were able to gain a foothold in the new field of finance by providing these services: as non-Catholics, they were not bound by the ecclesiastical prohibition against "usury"; and in terms of Judaism itself, Hillel had long ago re-interpreted the Torah's ban on charging interest.

Medicine, science, and academia

The strong Jewish tradition of religious scholarship often left Jews well prepared for secular scholarship. In some times and places, this was countered by banning Jews from studying at universities, or admitted them only in limited numbers (see Jewish quota). In medieval and early modern times, Jews were disproportionately prevalent among court physicians. Even in recent times, Jews have been poorly represented among land-holding classes, but far better represented in academia, professions, finance, and commerce. The strong representation of Jews in science and academia is evidenced by the fact that 167 persons known to be Jews or of half-Jewish ancestry have been awarded the Nobel Prize, accounting for 22% of all individual recipients worldwide between 1901 and 2004. In addition, of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people of the 20th century, 14 are either of Jewish ancestry or have converted to Judaism.

Literary and artistic culture

In some places where there have been relatively high concentrations of Jews, distinct secular Jewish subcultures have arisen. For example, ethnic Jews formed an enormous proportion of the literary and artistic life of Vienna, Austria at the end of the 19th century, or of New York City 50 years later (and Los Angeles in the mid-late 20th century). Many of these creative Jews were not particularly religious people. In general, Jewish artistic culture in various periods reflected the culture in which they lived.


See main articles Yiddish literature, Ladino literature, Hebrew literature, Jewish American literature, English Jewish literature. Also see Jews in literature and journalism.

Jewish authors have both created a unique Jewish literature and contributed to the national literatures of many of the countries in which they live. Though not strictly secular, the Yiddish works of authors like Sholem Aleichem (whose collected works amounted to 28 volumes) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize), form their own canon, focusing on the Jewish experience in both Eastern Europe, and in America. In the United States, Jewish writers like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and many others are considered among the greatest American authors, and incorporate a distinctly secular Jewish view into many of their works. The poetry of Allen Ginsberg often touches on Jewish themes (notably the early autobiographical works such as Howl and Kaddish). Other famous Jewish authors that made contributions to world literature include Heinrich Heine, German poet, Isaac Babel, Russian author, and Franz Kafka, of Prague.

In Modern Judaism: An Oxford Guide,Yaakov Malkin, Professor of Aesthetics and Rhetoric at Tel Aviv University and the founder and academic director of Meitar College for Judaism as Culture in Jerusalem, writes:

Secular Jewish culture embraces literary works that have stood the test of time as sources of aesthetic pleasure and ideas shared by Jews and non-Jews, works that live on beyond the immediate socio-cultural context within which they were created. They include the writings of such Jewish authors as Sholem Aleichem, Itzik Manger, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Babel, Martin Buber, Isaiah Berlin, Haim Nahman Bialik, Yehuda Amichai, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman. It boasts masterpieces that have had a considerable influence on all of western culture, Jewish culture included - works such as those of Heinrich Heine, Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Chagall, Jacob Epstein, Ben Shahn, Amedeo Modigliani, Franz Kafka, Max Reinhardt (Goldman), Ernst Lubitsch, and Woody Allen.[3]


Yiddish theatre

The Ukrainian Jew Abraham Goldfaden founded the first professional Yiddish-language theatre troupe in Iaşi, Romania in 1876. The next year, his troupe achieved enormous success in Bucharest. Within a decade, Goldfaden and others brought Yiddish theater to Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Germany, New York City, and other cities with significant Ashkenazic populations. Between 1890 and 1940, over a dozen Yiddish theatre groups existed in New York City alone, performing original plays, musicals, and Yiddish translations of theatrical works and opera. Perhaps the most famous of Yiddish-language plays is The Dybbuk (1919) by S. Ansky.

Yiddish theater in New York in the early 20th century rivalled English-language theater in quantity and often surpassed it in quality. A 1925 New York Times article remarks, "…Yiddish theater… is now a stable American institution and no longer dependent on immigration from Eastern Europe. People who can neither speak nor write Yiddish attend Yiddish stage performances and pay Broadway prices on Second Avenue." This article also mentions other aspects of a New York Jewish cultural life "in full flower" at that time, among them the fact that the extensive New York Yiddish-language press of the time included seven daily newspapers.[6]

In fact, however, the next generation of American Jews spoke mainly English to the exclusion of Yiddish; they brought the artistic energy of Yiddish theater into the American theatrical mainstream, but usually in a less specifically Jewish form.

Yiddish theater, most notably Moscow State Jewish Theater directed by Solomon Mikhoels, also played a prominent role in the arts scene of the Soviet Union until Stalin's 1948 reversal in government policy toward the Jews. (See Rootless cosmopolitan, Night of the Murdered Poets.)

Montreal's Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre continues to thrive after 50 years of performance.

American English-language theatre

See also List of Jewish American musicals writers, List of Jewish Americans in theatre, List of Jewish American playwrights.

Yiddish theatre fed into the mainstream of American stage and film acting: the method acting of Konstantin Stanislavski found its way to America through Jacob Adler; Adler's daughter Stella and son Luther were instrumental in the Group Theatre, two of whose three founders were also Jews. The list of Stella Adler's and Group Theatre founder Lee Strasberg's students, mostly Gentiles, reads like a Who's Who of American acting: Marlon Brando, Jill Clayburgh, James Dean, Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and Eva Marie Saint, to name just a few. Similarly, what Jewish composer John Kander calls an "interesting phenomenon that Broadway musical composers like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Marc Blitzstein are predominantly Jewish" comes from "the tradition established from New York's Yiddish theater."[7]

Not only have "Jewish composers and lyricists always dominated Broadway musicals"[8] in New York City, but they were instrumental in the creation and development of genre of musical theatre and earlier forms of theatrical entertainment, as well as contributing to non-musical theatre in the United States. According to University of Toronto English professor Andrea Most,

Almost all the American musicals in the 20th century were written by Jews and... the most compelling reason for this is that the musical offers a lot of strategies for exploring and performing new identities theatrically… the musical theater exists because of the unique historical situation of the Jews who created it"[9][10]

Brandeis University Professor Stephen J. Whitfield has commented that "More so than behind the screen, the talent behind the stage was for over half a century virtually the monopoly of one ethnic group. That is... [a] feature which locates Broadway at the center of Jewish culture".[11] New York University Professor Laurence Maslon says that "There would be no American musical without Jews… Their influence is corollary to the influence of black musicians on jazz; there were as many Jews involved in the form".[12] Other writers, such as Jerome Caryn, have noted that musical theatre and other forms of American entertainment are uniquely indebted to the contributions of Jewish-Americans, since "there might not have been a modern Broadway without the "Asiatic horde" of comedians, gossip columnists, songwriters, and singers that grew out of the ghetto, whether it was on the Lower East Side, Harlem (a Jewish ghetto before it was a black one), Newark, or Washington, D.C.."[13] Likewise, in the analysis of Aaron Kula, director of The Klezmer Company,

"…the Jewish experience has always been best expressed by music, and Broadway has always been an integral part of the Jewish-American experience… The difference is that one can expand the definition of "Jewish Broadway" to include an interdisciplinary roadway with a wide range of artistic activities packed onto one avenue--theatre, opera, symphony, ballet, publishing companies, choirs, synagogues and more. This vibrant landscape reflects the life, times and creative output of the Jewish-American artist".[14]

In the 19th and early 20th centuries the European operetta, a precursor the musical, often featured the work of Jewish composers such as Paul Abraham, Leo Ascher, Edmund Eysler, Leo Fall, Bruno Granichstaedten, Jacques Offenbach, Emmerich Kalman, Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Straus and Rudolf Friml; the latter four eventually moved to the United States and produced their works on the New York stage. One of the librettists for Bizet's Carmen (not an operetta proper but rather a work of the earlier opera comique form) was the Jewish Ludovic Halévy, niece of composer Fromental Halévy (Bizet himself was not Jewish but he married the elder Halevy's daughter, many have suspected that he was the descendant of Jewish converts to Christianity, and others have noticed Jewish-sounding intervals in his music.[15]) The Viennese librettist Victor Leon summarized the connection of Jewish composers and writers with the form of operetta: "The audience for operetta wants to laugh beneath tears—and that is exactly what Jews have been doing for the last two thousand years since the destruction of Jerusalem".[16] Another factor in the evolution of musical theatre was vaudeville, and during the early 20th century the form was explored and expanded by Jewish comedians and actors such as Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, The Marx Brothers, Anna Held, Al Jolson, Molly Picon, Sophie Tucker and Ed Wynn. During the period when Broadway was monopolized by revues and similar entertainments, Jewish producer Florenz Ziegfeld dominated the theatrical scene with his Follies.

By 1910 Jews (the vast majority of them immigrants from Eastern Europe) already composed a quarter of the population of New York City, and almost immediately Jewish artists and intellectuals began to show their influence on the cultural life of that city, and through time, the country as a whole. Likewise, while the modern musical can best be described as a fusion of operetta, earlier American entertainment and African-American culture and music, as well as Jewish culture and music, the actual authors of the first "book musicals" were the Jewish Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, George and Ira Gershwin, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. From that time until the 1980s a vast majority of successful musical theatre composers, lyricists, and book-writers were Jewish (a notable exception is the Protestant Cole Porter, who acknowledged that the reason he was so successful on Broadway was that he wrote what he called "Jewish music").[17] Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Schwartz, Kander and Ebb and dozens of others during the "Golden Age" of musical theatre were Jewish. Since the Tony Award for Best Original Score was instituted in 1947, approximately 70% of nominated scores and 60% of winning scores were by Jewish composers. Of successful British and French musical writers both in the West End and Broadway, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Lionel Bart are Jewish, among others.

One explanation of the affinity of Jewish composers and playwrights to the musical is that "traditional Jewish religious music was most often led by a single singer, a cantor while Christians emphasize choral singing."[18] Many of these writers used the musical to explore issues relating to assimilation, the acceptance of the outsider in society, the racial situation in the United States, the overcoming of obstacles through perseverance, and other topics pertinent to Jewish Americans and Western Jews in general, often using subtle and disguised stories to get this point across.[19] For example, Kern, Rodgers, Hammerstein, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg wrote musicals and operas aiming to normalize societal toleration of minorities and urging racial harmony; these works included Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Finian's Rainbow, South Pacific and the The King and I. Towards the end of Golden Age, writers also began to openly and overtly tackle Jewish subjects and issues, such as Fiddler on the Roof and Rags; Bart's Blitz! also tackles relations between Jews and Gentiles. Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's Parade is a sensitive exploration of both anti-Semitism and historical American racism. The original concept that became West Side Story was set in the Lower East Side during Easter-Passover celebrations; the rival gangs were to be Jewish and Italian Catholic.[20]

The ranks of prominent Jewish producers, directors, designers and performers include Boris Aronson, David Belasco, Joel Grey, the Minskoff family, Zero Mostel, Joseph Papp, Mandy Patinkin, the Nederlander family, Harold Prince, Max Reinhardt, Jerome Robbins, the Shubert family and Julie Taymor. Jewish playwrights have also contributed to non-musical drama and theatre, both Broadway and regional. Edna Ferber, Moss Hart, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller and Neil Simon are only some of the prominent Jewish playwrights in American theatrical history. Approximately 21% of the plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama were written and composed by Jewish Americans.

The Association for Jewish Theater is a contemporary organization that includes both American and international theaters that focus on theater with Jewish content. It has also expanded to include Jewish playwrights.

European theatre

From their Emancipation to World War II, Jews were very active and sometimes even dominant in certain forms of European theatre, and after the Holocaust many Jews continued to that cultural form. For example, in pre-Nazi Germany, where Nietzsche asked "What good actor of today is not Jewish?", acting, directing and writing positions were often filled by Jews. Both MacDonald and Jewish Tribal Review would generally be counted as anti-Semitic sources, but reasonably careful in their factual claims.</ref> "In Imperial Berlin, Jewish artists could be found in the forefront of the performing arts, from high drama to more popular forms like cabaret and revue, and eventually film. Jewish audiences patronized innovative theater, regardless of whether they approved of what they saw."[21] The British historian Paul Johnson, commenting on Jewish contributions to European culture at the fin de siècle, writes that

The area where Jewish influence was strongest was the theatre, especially in Berlin. Playwrights like Carl Sternheim, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernst Toller, Erwin Piscator, Walter Hasenclever, Ferenc Molnár and Carl Zuckmayer, and influential producers like Max Reinhardt, appeared at times to dominate the stage, which tended to be modishly left-wing, pro-republican, experimental and sexually daring. But it was certainly not revolutionary, and it was cosmopolitan rather than Jewish.[22]

Jews also made similar, if not as massive, contributions to theatre and drama in Austria, Britain, France, and Russia (in the national languages of those countries). Jews in Vienna, Paris and German cities found cabaret both a popular and effective means of expression, as German cabaret in the Weimar Republic "was mostly a Jewish art form".[23] The involvement of Jews in Central European theatre was halted during the rise of the Nazis and the purging of Jews from cultural posts, though many emigrated to Western Europe or the United States and continued working there.

Hebrew and Israeli theatre

The earliest known Hebrew language drama was written around 1550 by a Jewish-Italian writer from Mantua.[24] A few works were written by rabbis and Kabbalists in 17th century Amsterdam, where Jews were relatively free from persecution and had both flourishing religious and secular Jewish cultures.[25] All of these early Hebrew plays were about Biblical or mystical subjects, often in the form of Talmudic parables. During the post-Emancipation period in 19th century Europe, many Jews translated great European plays such as those by Shakespeare, Molière and Schiller, giving the characters Jewish names and transplanting the plot and setting to within a Jewish context.

Modern Hebrew theatre and drama, however, began with the development of Modern Hebrew in Europe (the first Hebrew theatrical professional performance was in Moscow in 1918)[26] and was "closely linked with the Jewish national renaissance movement of the twentieth century. The historical awareness and the sense of primacy which accompanied the Hebrew theatre in its early years dictated the course of its artistic and aesthetic development".[27] These traditions were soon transplanted to Israel. Playwrights such as Natan Alterman, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Leah Goldberg, Ephraim Kishon, Hanoch Levin, Aharon Megged, Moshe Shamir, Avraham Shlonsky, Yehoshua Sobol and A. B. Yehoshua have written Hebrew-language plays. Themes that are obviously common in these works are the Holocaust, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the meaning of Jewishness, and contemporary secular-religious tensions within Jewish Israel. The most well-known Hebrew theatre company and Israel's national theatre is the Habima (meaning "the stage" in Hebrew), which was formed in 1913 in Lithuania, and re-established in 1917 in Russia; another prominent Israeli theatre company is the Cameri Theatre, which is "is Israel's first and leading repertory theatre".[28]


File:Satz His Wifes Lover.jpg

Poster for His Wife's Lover (1931), starring Ludwig Satz

In the era when Yiddish theatre was still a major force in the world of theatre, over 100 films were made in Yiddish. Many are now lost. Prominent films included Shulamith (1931), the first Yiddish musical on film His Wife's Lover (1931), A Daughter of Her People (1932), the anti-Nazi film The Wandering Jew (1933), The Yiddish King Lear (1934), Shir Hashirim (1935), the biggest Yiddish film hit of all time Yidl Mitn Fidl (1936), Where Is My Child? (1937), Green Fields (1937), Dybuk (1937), The Singing Blacksmith (1938), Tevye (1939), Mirele Efros (1939), Lang ist der Weg (1948), and God, Man and Devil (1950).

The roster of Jewish entrepreneurs in the English-language American film industry is legendary: Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, the Warner Brothers, David O. Selznick, Marcus Loew, and Adolph Zukor, to name just a few, and continuing into recent times with such industry giants as super-agent Michael Ovitz, Michael Eisner, Lew Wasserman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, and David Geffen. However, few of these brought a specifically Jewish sensibility either to the art of film or, with the sometime exception of Spielberg, to their choice of subject matter. A much more specifically Jewish sensibility can be seen in the films of the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks, or Woody Allen; other examples of specifically Jewish films from the Hollywood film industry are the Barbra Streisand vehicle Yentl (1983), or John Frankenheimer's The Fixer (1968).

Jewish film composers have also written scores to a large amount of the great films of the 20th century. Among the most prolific have been Elmer Bernstein, Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, Alan Menken, Alfred Newman, Randy Newman, Marc Shaiman, Lalo Schifrin, the Sherman Brothers, Howard Shore, Max Steiner, and Dimitri Tiomkin. Another notable Jewish music composer for entertainment media, specifically television, is the award-winning Stewart Levin[5].

Radio and television

The first radio chains, the Radio Corporation of America and the Columbia Broadcasting System, were created by the Jewish-American David Sarnoff and William S. Paley, respectively. These Jewish innovators were also among the first producers of televisions, both black-and-white and color.[29] Among the Jewish immigrant communities of America there was also a thriving Yiddish language radio, with its "golden age" from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Although there is little specifically Jewish television in the United States (National Jewish Television, largely religious, broadcasts only three hours a week), Jews have been involved in American television from its earliest days. From Sid Caesar and Milton Berle to Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Andy Kaufman to Billy Crystal to Jerry Seinfeld, Jewish stand-up comedians have been icons of American television. Other Jews that held a prominent role in early radio and television were Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Walter Winchell and David Susskind. In the analysis of Paul Johnson,

The Broadway musical, radio and TV were all examples of a fundamental principle in Jewish diaspora history: Jews opening up a completely new field in business and culture, a tabula rasa on which to set their mark, before other interests had a chance to take possession, erect guild or professional fortifications and deny them entry.[30]

One of the first televised situation comedies, The Goldbergs was set in a specifically Jewish milieu in the Bronx. While the overt Jewish milieu of The Goldbergs was unusual for an American television series—one of the few other examples being Brooklyn Bridge (1991–1993). Jews have also played an enormous role among the creators and writers of television comedies: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, and Neil Simon all wrote for Sid Caesar; Reiner's son Rob Reiner worked with Norman Lear on All in the Family (which often engaged anti-semitism and other issues of prejudice); Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld created the hit sitcom Seinfeld, Lorne Michaels, Al Franken, Rosie Shuster, and Alan Zweibel of Saturday Night Live breathed new life into the variety show in the 1970s.

More recently, American Jews have been instrumental to "novelistic" television series such as The Wire and The Sopranos. Variously acclaimed as one of the greatest television series of all time, The Wire was created by David Simon. Simon also served as executive producer, head writer, and show runner. Matthew Weiner produced the fifth and sixth seasons of The Sopranos and later created Mad Men.


Jewish musical contributions also tend to reflect the cultures of the countries in which Jews live, the most notable examples being classical and popular music in the United States and Europe. (See: Jews in Classical Music and Jews in Mainstream and Jazz). Some music, however, is unique to particular Jewish communities, such as Israeli music, Israeli Folk music, Klezmer, Sephardic and Ladino music, and Mizrahi music.


Deriving from Biblical traditions, Jewish dance has long been used by Jews as a medium for the expression of joy and other communal emotions. Each Jewish diasporic community developed its own dance traditions for wedding celebrations and other distinguished events. For Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe, for example, dances, whose names corresponded to the different forms of klezmer music that were played, were an obvious staple of the wedding ceremony of the shtetl. Jewish dances both were influenced by surrounding Gentile traditions and Jewish sources preserved over time. "Nevertheless the Jews practiced a corporeal expressive language that was highly differentiated from that of the non-Jewish peoples of their neighborhood, mainly through motions of the hands and arms, with more intricate legwork by the younger men."[31] In general, however, in most religiously traditional communities, members of the opposite sex dancing together or dancing at times other than at these events was frowned upon.


Jewish humor is the long tradition of humor in Judaism dating back to the Torah and the Midrash, but generally refers to the more recent stream of verbal, self-deprecating and often anecdotal humor originating in Eastern Europe. Jewish humor took root in the United States over the last hundred years, beginning with vaudeville, and continuing through radio, stand-up, film, and television. A significant number of American comedians have been Jewish.

Visual arts

See also List of Jews in the visual arts.

Cover of the Yiddish children's book Yingl Tzingl Khvat (The Mischievous Boy) by El Lissitzky, c.1918.

Compared to music or theater, there is less of a specifically Jewish tradition in the visual arts. The most likely and accepted reason is that, as has been previously shown with Jewish music and literature, before Emancipation Jewish culture was dominated by religious tradition. As most Rabbinical authorities believed that the Second Commandment prohibited much visual art that would qualify as "graven images", Jewish artists were relatively rare until they lived in assimilated European communities beginning in the late 18th century.[32][33] It should be noted however, that despite fears by early religious communities of art being used for idolatrous purposes, Jewish sacred art is recorded in the Tanakh and extends throughout Jewish Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Tabernacle and the two Temples in Jerusalem form the first known examples of "Jewish art". During the first centuries of the Common Era, Jewish religious art also was created in regions surrounding the Mediterranean such as Syria and Greece, including frescoes on the walls of synagogues, of which the Dura Europas Synagogue is the only survivor[34] as well as the Jewish catacombs in Rome.[35][36] A Jewish tradition of illuminated manuscripts in at least Late Antiquity has left no survivors, but can be deduced from borrowings in Early Medieval Christian art. Middle Age Rabbinical and Kabbalistic literature also contain textual and graphic art, most famously illuminated haggadahs such as the Sarajevo Haggadah, and other manuscripts like the Nuremberg Mahzor. Some of these were illustrated by Jewish artists and some by Christians; equally some Jewish artists and craftsmen in various media worked on Christian commissions.[37] Johnson again summarizes this sudden change from a limited participation by Jews in visual art (as in many other arts) to a large movement by them into this branch of European cultural life:

Again, the arrival of the Jewish artist was a strange phenomenon. It is true that, over the centuries, there had been many animals (though few humans) in Jewish art: lions on Torah curtains, owls on Judaic coins, animals on the Capernaum capitals, birds on the rim of the fountain-basis in the fifth-century Naro synagogue in Tunis; there were carved animals, too, on timber synagogues in eastern Europe - indeed the Jewish wood-carver was the prototype of the modern Jewish plastic artist. A book of Yiddish folk-ornament, printed at Vitebsk in 1920, was similar to Chagall's own bestiary. But the resistance of pious Jews to portraying the living image was still strong at the beginning of the twentieth century.[38]

File:Image-Chagall Fiddler.jpg

The Fiddler by Marc Chagall

There were few Jewish secular artists in Europe prior to the Emancipation that spread throughout Europe with the Napoleonic conquests. There were exceptions, and Salomon Adler was a prominent portrait painter in eighteenth century Milan. The delay in participation in the visual arts parallels the lack of Jewish participation in European classical music until the nineteenth century, and which was progressively overcome with the rise of Modernism in the 20th century. There were many Jewish artists in the 19th century, but Jewish artistic activity boomed during the end of World War I. According to Nadine Nieszawer, "Until 1905, Jews were always plunged into their books but from the first Russian Revolution, they became emancipated, committed themselves in politics and became artists. A real Jewish cultural rebirth".[39] Individual Jews figured in the modern artistic movements of Europe— Art Deco (Tamara de Lempicka[40]), Bauhaus (Mordecai Ardon, László Moholy-Nagy), Constructivism (Boris Aronson, El Lissitzky), Cubism (Nathan Altman, Jacques Lipchitz, Louis Marcoussis, Max Weber, Ossip Zadkine[40]), Expressionism (Erich Kahn, Jack Levine, Jules Pascin,[40] Chaim Soutine), Impressionism (Max Liebermann, Leonid Pasternak, Camille Pissarro[40]), Minimalism (Richard Serra[40]), Orphism (Sonia Delaunay), Realism (Raphael Soyer), Social Realism (Leon Bibel, Ben Shahn, Raphael Soyer), Surrealism (Victor Brauner, Marc Chagall, Méret Oppenheim and Man Ray), the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism (Arik Brauer, Ernst Fuchs[40]) and Vorticism (David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein), as well as some not necessarily affiliated with a single movement (Balthus,[40] Eduard Bendemann, Mark Gertler, Maurycy Gottlieb, Nahum Gutman, Menashe Kadishman, Moise Kisling, R. B. Kitaj, Mane-Katz, Ilya Schor, Isidor Kaufman, Michel Kikoine, Pinchus Kremegne, Amedeo Modigliani, Elie Nadelman, Felix Nussbaum, Charlotte Salomon, Boris Schatz, George Segal, Anna Ticho, William Rothenstein)— and have been particularly prominent in the post-World War II United States and UK— Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, and Judy Chicago.

During the early 20th century Jews figured particularly prominently in the Montparnasse movement, and after World War II among the abstract expressionists: Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Al Held, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman, Milton Resnick, Jack Tworkov, Mark Rothko, and Louis Schanker as well as the Postmodernists.[41] Many Russian Jews were prominent in the art of scenic design, particularly the aforementioned Chagall and Aronson, as well as the revolutionary Léon Bakst, who like the other two also painted. One Mexican Jewish artist was Pedro Friedeberg; it was once thought the Frida Kahlo's father was Jewish, but historians have determined that he was not. Gustav Klimt was not Jewish, but nearly all of his patrons and several of his models were. Among major artists Chagall may be the most specifically Jewish in his themes. But as art fades into graphic design, Jewish names and themes become more prominent: Leonard Baskin, Al Hirschfeld, Ben Shahn, Art Spiegelman and Saul Steinberg. And in the Golden and Silver ages of American comic books, the Jewish role was overwhelming: Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, creators of Superman, were Jewish, as were Bob Kane ( Robert Cohen), Will Eisner, Martin Goodman, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee of Marvel Comics; and William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman, founders of Mad, to name only a small sample. Many of those involved in the later ages of comics are also Jewish, such as Julius Schwartz, Jenette Kahn, Len Wein, Peter David, Neil Gaiman, and Brian Michael Bendis.

Jews have also played a very important role in photography; some notable figures are Andre Kertesz, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Cindy Sherman, and Steve Lehman.[42]


Jewish shop (Le Marais, Paris)

Jewish cooking combines the food of many cultures in which Jews have traveled, including Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Spanish, German and Eastern European styles of cooking, all influenced by the need for food to be kosher. Thus, "Jewish" foods like hummus, stuffed cabbage, and blintzes all come from various other cultures. The amalgam of these foods, plus uniquely Jewish contributions like bagels, tzimmis, cholent, gefilte fish and matzah balls, make up Jewish cuisine.

See also


  1. Măciucă, Constantin, preface to Bercovici, Israil, O sută de ani de teatru evriesc în România ("One hundred years of Yiddish/Jewish theater in Romania"), 2nd Romanian-language edition, revised and augmented by Constantin Măciucă. Editura Integral (an imprint of Editurile Universala), Bucharest (1998). ISBN 973-98272-2-5. See the article on the author for further information.
  2. The Emergence of a Jewish Cultural Identity, undated (2002 or later) on, reprinted from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. Accessed 11 February 2006.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Malkin, Y. "Humanistic and secular Judaisms." Modern Judaism An Oxford Guide, p. 107.
  4. Daniel J. Elazar, Judaism and Democracy: The Reality. Undated. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Accessed 11 February 2006.
  5. The section on banking is drawn largely from the article "Usury" in the public domain Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–1906).
  6. Melamed, S.M., "The Yiddish Stage", New York Times, September 27, 1925 (X2).
  7. Keith D. Cohen, John Kander to be honored in KC concerts. The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, May 27, 2005. Accessed 11 February 2006.
  8. Chris Curcio, This 'Musical Journey' slips along the way, March 31, 2005, The Arizona Republic. Accessed 11 February 2006.
  9. Broadway helped Jews gain acceptance, researcher says, 11-December-2002 on Summary Andrea Mostbook. Accessed 11 February 2006.
  10. Alan Gomberg, What's New on the Rialto?, book review of Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical by Andrea Most, February 2004. On Talkin' Broadway site. Accessed 11 February 2006.
  11. Stephen J. Whitfield, Musical Theater (PDF). Brandeis Review, Winter/Spring 2000. Accessed 11 February 2006.
  12. Samantha M. Shapiro, The Arts: A Jewish Street Called Broadway. Hadassah Magazine, October 2004 Vol. 86 No.2. Accessed 11 February 2006.
  13. Charyn, Jerome. "Early Broadway's un-Jewish Jews." Midstream 50.1 (January 2004): 19(7). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. UC Irvine (CDL). 9 March 2006
  14. The Klezmer Company Breaks New Ground with Orchestral Klezmer Production "Jewish Broadway with Orchestra and Chorus" at FAU. Florida Atlantic University press release, February 8, 2005. Accessed 11 February 2006.
  15. Raphael Mostel, Carmen Comes Home, The Forward, May 7, 2004. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  16. Dr. Kenneth Libo Ph. D and Michael Skakun, The Persecution of Creativity: Jews, Music and Vienna, Center for Jewish History, April 16, 2004. Accessed 12 February 2006
  17. Michael Billig, Creating the American Musical. Originally from Rock 'N' Roll Jews (Five Leaves Publications), extracted on Accessed 12 February 2006.
  18. Jacob Baron, Jewish Composers, Machar, The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism, June 2, 2005. Accessed 15 February 2006.
  19. Alan Gomberg, op. cit.
  20. Arthur Laurents, Theater: West Side Story; The Growth of an Idea, New York Herald Tribune, August 4, 1957. Reproduced on Accessed 12 February 2006.
  21. Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture, 1890–1918, on the site of The Jewish Museum, New York. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  22. Johnson, Paul (1987). A History of the Jews, pg. 479. New York: Harper Perennial.
  23. Suzanne Weiss, Jewish cabaret singer brings songs of Berlin to Berkeley, The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, September 27, 1996. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  24. Shimon Levy, The Development of Israeli Theatre– a brief overview. Credited to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem, 2000. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  25. [1], Jewish Encyclopedia. Could not access 12 February 2006.
  26. Shimon Levy, op. cit.
  27. Orna Ben-Meir, Biblical Thematics in Stage Design for the Hebrew Theatre, Assaph, Section C, no. 11 (July 1999), p. 141 et. seq.. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  28. History of Israeli Theatre, on a Geocities site, credits and
  29. Johnson, op. cit.' p. 462-463.
  30. Johnson, op. cit. p. 462-463.
  31. Yiddish, Klezmer, Ashkenazic or 'shtetl' dances, Le Site Genevois de la Musique Klezmer. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  32. Ismar Schorsch, Shabbat Shekalim Va-Yakhel 5755, commentary on Exodus 35:1 - 38:20. February 25, 1995. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  33. Velvel Pasternak, Music and Art, part of "12 Paths" on Accessed 12 February 2006.
  34. Jessica Spitalnic Brockman, A Brief History of Jewish Art on Accessed 12 February 2006.
  35. Michael Schirber, Did Christians copy Jewish catacombs?, MSNBC, July 20, 2005. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  36. Jona Lendering, The Jewish diaspora: Rome. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  37. Roza Bieliauskiene and Felix Tarm, Brief History of Jewish Art, Jewish Art Network. Accessed January 14, 2010.
  38. Johnson, op.cit., p. 411.
  39. Rebecca Assoun, Jewish artists in Montparnasse. European Jewish Press, 19 July 2005. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 40.3 40.4 40.5 40.6 With the exception of those living in isolated Jewish communities, most Jews listed here as contributing to secular Jewish culture also participated in the cultures of the peoples they lived with and nations they lived in. In most cases, however, the work and lives of these people did not exist in two distinct cultural spheres but rather in one that incorporated elements of both.
  41. Jewish Artists, Jewish Virtual Library, 2005. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  42. [2], John Levy, "Review of The Tibetans", Foto 8, [3], Lehman, Steve, The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive (New York: How Town / Umbrage), 1998.

Further reading

  • Landa, M.J. (1926). The Jew in Drama. New York: Ktav Publishing House (1969).
  • Veidlinger, Jeffrey. Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

External links

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