The Spiritual Searching of Jewish Artists

Dear Friends,


The spiritual searching of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in North America was accompanied by a new appreciation of ethnic diversity. These developments, combined with the events of the Six-Day War, awakened among many young American Jews a desire to explore their Jewish roots. Among them were artists in the performing, visual, and literary arts who sought to express their exploration of their Jewish roots through their art. Some of these artists approached the American Jewish Congress for support and advice. There was a special need for a creative community which they could meet other Jewish artists; moreover, they needed ways of bringing their artistic achievements to the attention of the public.


In response, the American Jewish Congress, through the efforts of the late Martin Steinberg and his wife, Lillian, established in 1976 the Martin Steinberg Center to serve as a center for young Jewish artists. I was hired to be the program director of the Center under the guidance of Julius Schatz, who was the director of AJCongress’s commission on Jewish culture, and I later became the director of the Center. (In the States, I ws known by my English name, Jeff Oboler.)


The Center began to attract Jewish artists of all ages, as well as spiritually-searching Jews who were interested in the arts. The Center organized workshops in various artistic disciplines which gave artists within each discipline the opportunity to exchange ideas and receive valuable feedback on their work, while developing new friendships and professional contacts. Through these workshops, the artists also had the opportunity to organize events for the public which would feature their work, such as exhibits, concerts, and poetry readings. There were also programs at the Center which enabled participants to study and experience the Jewish spiritual tradition. For example, there were talks on how the Torah views artistic expression, gatherings on Rosh Chodesh – the New Month – when guest teachers spoke about various aspects of Judaism, and a few Shabbos retreats which enabled participants to experience the serenity, joy, and shalom of the sacred Seventh Day.


Many of the artists at the Center had an interest in the way Jewish communities preserved and expressed their unique culture during the long exile in the Diaspora. For example, there were musicians who were rediscovering Yiddish folk songs, as well as klezmer music, the instrumental music of Eastern European  Jews, and there were musicians who were rediscovering the Ladino songs of Sephardic Jews. As a result of these activities, the Center had an important role in the revival of klezmer and Sephardic music during the years of the Center’s existence (1976-1985).


The interest of these artists in the spiritual and cultural life of Jews in the Diaspora was not in harmony with the goals of most of the Zionist establishment. As we explained, the World Zionist Organization became dominated by leaders who desired to have nationalism replace the Torah as the raison d’etre of our people, and they felt that the highest expression of this nationalism was to live in the Land of Zion and speak Hebrew. For most of these Zionist leaders, the centuries of exile had no purpose or meaning, and one of these leaders was David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of the State of Israel, who said, “The distant past is closer to us than the recent past of the last two thousand years” (The Zionist Idea - Introduction). As the historian, Lucy Dawidowicz, writes:


 “The philosophical concept of the negation of the exile became among many Zionists a negation of Jewish creativity in the Diaspora.” (Cited in “The World of Our Fathers” by Irving Howe)


As a result, most Zionist schools did not teach about the great spiritual and cultural accomplishments of the Jewish people in the lands of their dispersion. After I moved to Jerusalem, I was reminded of this negative attitude towards Jewish culture in the Diaspora when I read an interview with Shulamit Aloni, just after Prime Minister Rabin appointed her to be the Education Minister of the State of Israel. In this interview, she expressed her unhappiness that a growing number of young Jews in Israel had become interested in the Chassidic and Yiddish music of the “shtetl” – a Yiddish term for the Jewish towns and villages of Eastern Europe. To her great dismay, she was now hearing some Chassidic and Yiddish songs on Israeli radio, and she complained, “I feel like we're back in the shtetl.”


The majority of the artists at the Martin Steinberg Center were the children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and they therefore had a special interest in the revival of Yiddish folk songs and klezmer music. I myself am a grandchild of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and I therefore had a personal interest in this revival. I had much pleasure from working with the artists in this area, as I discovered that the Yiddish language and music expressed some of the warm and soulful qualities that I associated with being Jewish.


It was my understanding, however, that language and the arts are not the essence of our people’s soul; they are rather the “garments” of this collective soul. They are the outer expressions of our people’s soul, but they are not the soul itself. I therefore sought to help spiritually-searching Jewish artists to rediscover the inner soul of our people.


My spiritual perspective was expressed in a letter that I wrote to a friend who was a klezmer musician. With the encouragement of my colleague, Chava Miller – the Center’s associate director – the following excerpt from this letter was published in our Jewish Arts Newsletter:




The importance of klezmer music as an instrument – one among many – of Jewish rebirth is often not fully understood. There is a great outpouring of interest in this form of music, as evident by the large crowds attending all klezmer concerts. We need to ask ourselves the question: Why? Is it simply nostalgia or a return to roots, or is there inherent in klezmer music certain strengths of our people which are now emerging from hiding?


As you know so well, klezmer music grew out of a culture where Jews prayed to God and studied the Torah – always chanting – using the song of the chant to reveal the deeper meanings of the words of prayer and study. According to most scholars, the biblical cantillations of our people may be the oldest form of our musical culture, and one can certainly hear the sounds of prayer in aspects of klezmer music – the yearning, the searching, the sometimes mystical blues sound. For a generation of Jews who have lost the technical skills of Jewish prayer, klezmer music evokes in many the ancient yearning for our Source, and expresses the ultimate longing for our redemption from all exiles.


And although the klezmer musicians borrowed from the melodies of the surrounding cultures, they infused these melodies with the sounds and soul of our people. In this way, they created music which was both “new” and “Jewish.” At a time when so many people in the West are spiritually searching, this deeper side of klezmer music needs to brought to the community, as well as discussed by the musicians themselves.




There were other artists at the Center who shared my perspective, and I found some kindred spirits among the members of a cultural group called Yugentruf – a network of young people who were dedicated to the revival of Yiddish. Unlike many of the Yiddishists of a hundred years ago, the members of this group recognized and appreciated the spiritual roots of Yiddish culture; moreover, they were aware that if Yiddish culture was to have a future, it needed to reconnect to these roots. It is therefore not surprising that a number of the most active members of Yugentruf began to become Torah-observant.


Another example of a kindred spirit is Andy Statman, one of his generation’s premier mandolinists and clarinetists, who began a spiritual journey which led him to become a Torah-observant Jew, step-by-step. I first met Andy when he performed at the Martin Steinberg Center with the noted fiddler, Alan Kaufman. At an early stage of his musical career, Andy was attracted to all things ethnic —Balkan, Native American, Japanese, Latin and African root music, and at one point even recorded with the likes of Jerry Garcia. At some point, he had a spiritual awakening which led him to explore the klezmer and Chassidic music of his roots, and through this process, he discovered Torah – the inner “soul” of this music.


The journey of Andy Statman and other Jewish artists back to their spiritual roots can help us to understand the fears of Shulamit Aloni, when she noticed that a growing number of young Israeli Jews were rediscovering Yiddish and Chassidic music. Aloni is a “devout” secularist, and she once publicly criticized Prime Minister Rabin for wearing a yarmulke and for saying the Shema – the traditional proclamation of the Divine Oneness – when he visited Auschwitz. It is therefore likely that this astute educator realized that the rediscovery of this music could also lead to the rediscovery of the spiritual tradition which serves as the inner spirit of this music. In her view, this would be a serious blow to the secular Zionist ideology to which she devoted her life. As someone who worked closely with spiritually-searching Jewish artists, I acknowledge that if this was her real fear, then it was totally justified.


The future is not on the side of Jewish secularists, as the God of history proclaimed:


“And as for Me, this is My covenant with them,” said Hashem; “My spirit which rests upon you and My words which I have placed in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth nor from the mouths of your children nor from the mouths of your  children’s children,” said Hashem,” from now on to all eternity.” (Isaiah 59:21)



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen


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