To the Editor:
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik paints a rosy picture of artistic creativity among the Orthodox in Israel, citing examples of writer-rabbis, filmmakers, and visual artists (“Filling the Artistic Void,” January). What he does not mention is the equal and opposite picture in the United States, where creativity is squelched in Orthdox communities and children are taught from infancy to eschew any lifetime artistic pursuit.
Indeed the arts among America’s Orthodox boil down to an annual night at the opera fundraiser for Yeshiva university and, perhaps, a Jewish gallery hop by one of the women’s organizations.
This glaring discrepancy has two explanations. Foremost is the prohibitive cost of being Orthodox in America. For a couple with three children to afford Jewish day-school tuition, synagogue membership, summer camp, and the minimal philanthropy necessary to save face in the community, they would need a combined household income in the top 4 percent. Even so, they might merely be treading financial water.
Hence the pursuit of money becomes the sine qua non, and most Jewish kids become lawyers, investment bankers, MBAs, CPAs, DDSs, and, to a lesser and lesser degree, MDs. They choose these professions not out of any burning love of the law or finance or orthodontics, but simply because anything else might mean having to strip naked before scholarship committees consisting exclusively of the super-wealthy who have little empathy for mendicants whose incomes are only $150,000 a year.
The other reason for the dearth of artists among the American Orthodox is cowardice, pure and simple. Young Israelis are taught to be independent from an early age. Plus, three years in the military, followed by a trek through Nepal or India or the Amazon jungle, makes them far less risk-averse. Unlike their cowering American counterparts, they are not afraid to take chances. And if art requires anything, it requires a surplus of guts and an absence of greed.
While the picture in Israel is indeed promising—replete with Orthodox film and art schools—it is dismal in the U.S., where Orthodox society is perhaps the first in history that has virtually nothing to show for itself in terms of creativity—neither poet nor painter, neither violinist nor videographer. This is beyond tragic.