After the Heebie Jeebies at CBGB’s event last week City Mouse and I got the chance to talk, amongst other things, about what makes an artist a Jewish artist. Part of the thesis of the book is that the major inventors of Punk music were Jewish, at not only that, but their Judaism was a huge influence to their music and lifestyle. I felt reading the book that it was a bit of a stretch to credit Judaism with the full invention of a movement, yes some of the people were Jewish but how can you say that it was a big part of their influence? Is it really Jewish culture that leads to the art or are the artists just Jewish? And how Jewish do you have to be to be considered a Jewish artist?
These are questions that I’ve asked frequently over the past few years as I work in a Jewish theater. We are constantly questioning what our season should look like, what authors we should be reading, what requirements make something “Jewish” or “relating to the Jewish community.” It’s also something I’m thinking about while starting to look at what life beyond the J would be. I know I would miss working in the friendly family arms of a Jewish organization. I know that Judaism will always play a role in my life, but how much so in my art? Do I want to keep a focus on Jewish theater or branch into all theater? Or does it not matter because anything I touch becomes Jewish?
In an interview with himself yesterday the writer Steve Almond threw around a similar question. Where does Jewish identity fit in his writing? What makes a Jewish writer other than religious heritage? His view was that it really did have to do with his writing, not his bloodline, and certainly not his religiousness (he considers himself atheist). For him it’s an attitude which he describes as:
…neurotic, self-deprecating, smart-alecky, moralizing. Oh, and guilt-ridden (though I suppose that falls under the broader category of “neurotic.”)…. I forgot an adjective: contentious.
If these descriptors cause offense, I hereby apologize. But I don’t take them back. These are the attitudes I associate with the Jews I know, and I do so lovingly. I like that we’re big mouths and that we know how to crack jokes at our expense and that we’re honest about our doubts and in our concern for the world. And I do believe that the most important part of being raised Jewish – the one part that seems to have stuck for me – has to do with a determination to find, or create, meaning through words. Isn’t that what the Bible amounts to?
You can read the full interview here and I think it’s worth it.