Below we publish five of the many responses to our request for comments on Elliot E. Cohen’s “Jewish Culture in America,” which appeared in the May 1947 issue of COMMENTARY. It is our intention to publish some further selections from these comments in later issues.

Mr. Cohen’s article spoke for the creation of a specifically Jewish culture in America that, without confining itself within the traditional bounds of religion or the new secular bounds of nationalism, would speak to Jews and the rest of the world with the same pertinence that the highest culture of the West in general does. Drawing no sectarian lines, this American Jewish culture would welcome the best efforts of Jews inside and outside the Jewish community to make Jewish experience in this country meaningful. But, hopefully, it would depend on the organized Jewish community to provide these efforts with the core of both an audience and financial support. . . .



It is not only Jews who are too often tempted to consider culture the mere “marmalade added to the bread and butter of daily life.” Kierkegaard once said, rightly, that all men should and could live religiously in a palace, but they generally prefer to use only the dog kennel nearby. Jews, for many comprehensible reasons, are even more attracted than other people to life in the kennel of materialistic—or idealistic-platitudes, and tend to put the old palace of Jewish culture on display only when they want to show off before friends—or opponents.

But if we do not dare to take the musty covers off the chairs and sofas of our old palace of the Jewish spirit, if we do not venture to make use of the palace and its treasures, if old and new Jewish wisdom does not serve to answer the real problems of our modern life, we shall remain cultural pariahs, however much we boast of our previous and present intellectual and artistic achievements.

If we have inherited a palace of Jewish culture, it naturally makes little sense to speak only the language of the kennel. It is a mere obsession of well-meaning cultural leaders of the modern age to value nothing but popularized thought and—in addition—even thoughts hardly worth popularizing.

To fight against this obsession is, as Mr. Cohen pointed out, in no way undemocratic. On the contrary, as gifted children resent being treated as children, so gifted cultural laymen resent being fed with second-hand cultural nourishment when they could receive original and creative work.

It is hardly believable that American Jewry should respond less to a “highbrow” Jewish magazine than German Jewry responded to such periodicals as Der Jude or Der Morgen only a short time ago. If, in the short period of its existence, COMMENTARY has done nothing but give the lie to those faint-hearted people who prophesied failure two years ago, it has already performed a useful service.

As an old saying goes, true democracy aspires to make everyone live in a palace, not in a hut; and true culture seems to me far more democratic than many highbrows or lowbrows assume. There are enough cultural cads among highbrow professors and other intellectual specialists, and, fortunately, there are countless highly perceptive people among cultural laymen. (It is no small comfort to hear that Mr. Cohen can testify to this fact on the ground of first-hand experience.) Let these perceptive laymen enter the palace of Jewish culture and tell the specialists that their reports on its façade are often not good enough.

If Jewish culture is understood to be primarily for our own use, all the unhealthy and spasmodic efforts at total assimilation to our non-Jewish environment, or total dissociation from it, will disappear, and the plague of blueprints for our culture will disappear with them. The cry for blueprints in creative work is as paradoxical as it is the sure sign of cultural impotence. What lover cares for fixed rules telling him how to approach his loved one? What romantic or mystic is interested, first of all, in definitions of mysticism or romanticism? Strange to say, it is generally only the people who handle exact, scientific concepts most carelessly who seek definitions of intellectual tendencies that, by definition, must exclude definitions.

The non-scientific part of every living culture is characterized by intellectual aspirations that cannot and do not want to be defined, or even described, beforehand. The propagandists and cultural intermediators who are mainly interested in programs, directions, rules, and blueprints, generally exhaust their energies completely in setting up these blueprints and in boasting about them—so that programs become a substitute for the matter itself, as the Fourth of July speech becomes an ersatz for real democracy.

True culture, it cannot be said often enough, is das Lied, das aus der Kehle dringt (the song that spontaneously pours out of one’s throat) and does not obey any dictate or plan or purpose from the outside. Culture is also Lohn der reichlich lohnet in sich selbst (the reward richly rewarding in itself). If culture is primarily meant to please or displease others and not meant originally for home consumption, it will be of no value to anyone, either to others or to ourselves.

Jeremy Bentham once said, ingenuously, in answer to the question—how can one get the reputation of being a great humanitarian?—that there was only one way: to be truly benevolent and to make efforts to put your fondness of people into practice. There is only one way to have culture: by feeling a dire need for it and to satisfy that need.

We have to turn to the Jewish past and its great masters of thought, feeling, and action—but not because they are toploftiness and tall talk to us, and to others, and not because we want to demonstrate how different or how similar this Jewish greatness is against other types of human greatness. We must turn to the great Jewish past because we feel that questions were asked and answers prepared in it that, more than many Christian or other kinds of answers, will help us ask our own questions and prepare our own answers. This, despite the deep and genuine esteem we may have for the great cultural achievements of others. The creative community, no less than the creative individual, needs considerable nourishment from alien sources but, with few exceptions, mother-milk remains a particularly vital form of food.

However, with all this and more to be said, who can foretell whether we can expect a flowering of American Jewish culture in the near future? It is most reassuring to hear that a critical and experienced observer is very hopeful. But beyond any optimism or pessimism in our approach to culture—life, including the life of Jewish culture in America, must be lived through; and no rosy or gloomy forecast can or should alter the character of the joyful and disheartening experiences unavoidably linked up with it.



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